Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Doing an installer right: Microsoft Office 2010

So out of curiousity I downloaded and installed Microsoft Office 2010 today (don't freak out about piracy, folks -- I'm a Microsoft TechNet subscriber and this copy is a quite legit eval copy). I haven't had a chance to use the software yet, but one thing I have to say is about the installer: Microsoft did it right.

A good installer must do the following things:

  1. It must be SIMPLE. People don't want to select lots of stuff, they just want to click one button and have it happen. With the Office 2010 installer you click the 'Install' button (or 'Upgrade' button if Office 2007 is installed on your system), it prompts you for the license key, validates it right then and there, you click 'Next', accept the license, and then it just does it. It's basically four clicks (assuming you can cut-and-paste the license key from the TechNet site of course, if you have to type it in then there's a few keystrokes too). If your geeks or marketroids insist on all sorts of additional functionality, hide it behind a little "+" sign or something where people won't get freaked out about it, users just want it to Just Work, they don't care about all that stuff.
  2. It must handle both upgrades and fresh installs in a clean manner. So if a prior version is already installed, it should give you the option of upgrading it and keeping your configuration settings as much as possible.
  3. If possible, it should offer to import settings from a prior program, or from a competing program, much as the latest IE will import settings from an install of Firefox or Safari.
  4. It must handle aborted installs gracefully. The installer should be idempotent -- you should be able to run it regardless of what state the system got left in, and it will just Do The Right Thing. If the process fails halfway through removing the old version of the software due to something out of your control -- like the moron behind the keyboard accidentally hitting the shutdown button when he was trying for another button -- you should be able to run the installer again and have it Do The Right Thing, knowing what part of the process was last successfully finished and continuing from there, or unwinding back to the original conditions and starting from scratch again, but either way it should Just Work.
  5. Once it starts actually installing, it should just do it, not bother you anymore, until the end of the process where, if a reboot is required, it can prompt you for that.
Microsoft has accomplished all of these things with the Office 2010 installer. And you should do the same when you write yours.

So let's state that principle one more time: End users want it to Just Work. Geeking out with oodles of settings and such might make marketroids drool with all the checkboxes they can fill in on the inevitable "competitive comparison checklist", and might make geeks drool over all the cool widgets they can play with, but for 99% of the people out there all you're doing is a) confusing them, and b) making your technical support people pull their hair out trying to deal with end users who want it to Just Work rather than have all these options to select. Especially now, with 2 terabyte hard drives selling for $130 at Fry's and most computers shipping with a minimum of 4 gigabytes of RAM, it doesn't make sense to do anything other than install the whole tamale in the default place. For 99.9% of your users, that's going to be all they want. For the other 0.1% of your users, put that little "+" if you want... just put it somewhere out of the way so someone has to *want* to click on it. And realize that in reality, nobody cares other than a few fellow geeks.

Thinking like an end user. That's what it takes to make a program that Just Works. That's something I've had to pound into my team's head over and over and over again over the years, think like an end user, not like a geek... and Microsoft, at least, appears to have finally learned that lesson in at least this one instance. At which point I must congratulate them, because it's *hard* for geeks to think like end users, but in this one instance, at least, they managed it.


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