Installers

Recently I borrowed a copy  of Microsoft Flight Simulator X from a friend (since I haven’t used my joystick since I played HAWX).  As I write this post I’m staring at the installer screen (have been for about 10 minutes) randomly showing pictures from the game.  I will probably be looking at the screen for a while more, since it barely even looks 25% complete :(

So what makes a good installer?  I thought I’d write down a couple of points that annoy me about installers or that I have found good.

Complexity/Simplicity

The purpose of an installer is to put some software from a disc onto your computer for you to use.  That means there are (at least) 3 aspects it needs to cover (from a functional point of view):

  • Putting the software onto your computer
  • Setting it up for your computer
  • Setting it up for you

Different installers handle each of these aspect differently.

Some installers will give the user lots of options to configure their installation; changing the directory it installs to, how much they install, whether they install additional 3rd party software, how it is configured for the machine (graphics settings etc), whether an icon is placed on the desktop and folder in the Start menu… and theres a million more things that they can ask.  Sometimes it can get quite annoying if you just want to test out the software, or don’t understand the settings.

There are other installers I have used which take the other approach, you click install and that’s it.   (As a short aside it’s been 10 minutes since I started writing this post and it just asked me for disc 2 :S)  In these cases the options are already chosen for you and you have to live with wherever it installs to etc.

Most installers though go with a compromise.  There will be a couple of pages of legal stuff and stuff saying “are you sure you want to install” and at some point it will ask if you want to do an “advanced installation” (or something along those lines).  This give the people like me (who don’t want to install into “Program Files”) a chance to change things, but also allows people who don’t care where the software goes to just keep clicking next till it’s done.

Waiting for the installer

This is probably the worst time for the user, they have a shiny new piece of software they want to use, but have to wait (usually some unknown amount of time) for it to install.  Some installers put a progress bar on the screen so that you have a rough idea of where it is upto (and in some cases what stage the installer is at or what file is being installed).  This gives a little visibility into whats happening and might even let the user know roughly how long it is going to take, but it’s quite boring only looking at a progress bar for 1 – 45 minutes as the software installs.

There is an old engineering anecdote that goes something like this:

An owner of a building continually got reports that the elevators were slow.  So he hired a group of engineers to look at the problem and make them faster.  The engineers looked at the elevators, the mechanics, the people using them and what floors they went to, how often they stopped etc.  They made some changes to the elevators and all of the complaints stopped.  At the end they had not made any changes to the elevators, they had simply installed mirrors.  The mirrors gave the people something to look at, they could fix their hair and suits.  The problem wasn’t that the elevators were slow, the problem was that the users felt like their time was being wasted.

Installers have exactly the same problem, no one wants to stare at a progress bar for 10 minutes.  Sure you can minimise the installer (sometimes) and surf the web or go and get a drink from the kitchen, but then you don’t know when it is finished and the user is actively having to do something to account for the installer wasting their time.

Most installers these days attempt to stick on a mirror in the form of screenshots or advertising propaganda.  This is ok for quick installer,s but for anything over about a minute it just gets annoying.  If you have been waiting for 2 years for this game to come out, when you finally get it you don’t want to have to stare at the same screenshots you’ve been looking at for the past 2 years and you don’t care that it uses the latest 3D acceleration or that the software allows you to create “Professional level powerpoint presentation”, you just want to use the software.

The sad part about this is that sometimes it does take a while to install the software and they can make that process faster and putting in a mirror (the screenshots) only helps for a little bit, after a while you realise it’s just a trick (usually at the point where the screenshots start repeating).

The screenshots work for a little because the user feels like they are doing something, but after a while what they are doing isn’t worth it anymore.  The solution is to provide them with something better to do.  I have only seen this done a couple of times, but I think it’s a great idea.  There has been a couple of games that I’ve installed that went through a brief tutorial while installing.  Showing the users the keys for the game and explaining some of the equipment and back story is something useful.  It also means while they are able to hit the ground running when the game does install and help maximise their experience.

Probably the best example from this was (I think) one of the Command And Conquer games (if it was C&C it would’ve been 3).  During the installer it actually played a video, or audio file, explaining some of the backstory.  By the time this had finished the game was installed and ready to go (or at least almost installed).  I didn’t feel like I had wasted any time and the experience of the game had already begun.

Another similar option (which I’ve never seen in a game) would be to allow the user to create their character while the game is installing.

Installing Extra 3rd Party Software

There is nothing worse than reaching 100% on a progress bar, only to have it reset or have another bar pop up.  This is what it’s like when it finishes installing the game and then suddenly starts installing the latest release of game spy etc.

My suggestion with these points is to either make installing the 3rd party stuff part of the installation and at least let the user know before they install the rest of the game that there will be more stuff at the end.  As part of the installation setup ask if they want to install the 3rd party stuff.  It just means that when they click the big “Install” button it will install everything they need.

Restarting

I’ve installed so much software only to have the installer say “sorry… you’ve gotta wait another 5 minutes while your computer restarts”.  Generally you don’t need to restart the computer, but occasionally you do (usually more with application software opposed to games).  With games I generally take the risk, but with other software I will usually restart.

I don’t know if there is really away around this.  Again you could prompt the user about this at the beginning, means they can walk away and when they get back the computer will have restarted and everything will be ready to go.

Flight Simulator X

Installing the main game took around 45 minutes, and then it wanted me to restart (I did cause I also had to restart for some Windows updates).  Once I restarted I remember I wanted to install the Acceleration expansion pack.

Both the main game and the expansion have screenshots being displayed, but after 10 minutes they’ve all blurred together.  There’s no number on the progress bar, and I’ve seen it reset multiple times, so I can’t trust it.

Currently it’s progress bar is at about 30%…. looks like I should settle in for a long one.

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