March 12, 2006

To "Install" or not to "Install"?

Updated: I should mention that Microsoft has released a similar feature in the latest IE 7 betas (RSS Screensaver). It doesn't appear to me that either company was particularly influenced by the other in this regard.

While we're on the subject of (browsers and) AOL Explorer: there's a new beta available (version 1.5 - its an early beta, so no promises :)).

It introduces a few (new) nice features, in clean, clutter-free way. In particular, I like the the RSS Screensaver - its one-click activation, and actually pretty cool - Not earth-shattering, or anything, but nice. Just click "Install Screensaver" in the "Feeds" panel (on the left sidebar of the browser) - I think you'll be pleased at the utility and value, especially if you're on Broadband.

I find, though, the label of the button to be all wrong - confusing AND misleading (and WRONG :)). In this case, the Screensaver software is already on the box (as a part of the AOL Explorer install), it just gets set as your current screensaver.

And although the button is on the "Feeds" panel I don't think the action is clear, contextually.

I'd have preferred to have it be a checkbox that said "Show my Feeds as a Screensaver." (or something; and then have it work much like the "Check if default browser..." feature works).

So why does it say "Install Screensaver"?

Well, we felt that "Install Screensaver" best captured the percieved literal (if there is such a concept) result of the action. Especially with all the (justified) sensitivity to Spyware, etc., we didn't want to make it feel like we were hijacking anything on the end user's machine and I agree with the rationale.

Still - I feel like we've sacrificed clarity in the name of user advocacy. It may feel more true, but I think its less right, and less helpful.

The internal debate about this centered on this question: what does "installation" mean anymore?

Surprisingly, we run into this a lot - especially in a rights obsessed world - for advocacy, privacy, and legal reasons. The heart of the question, I think is: what separates applications from content? (The implied idea, in this case, being that apps require install; content does not - there are other issues about distribution rights that bite us in this regard).

Is HTML "application" or "content"? Does JavaScript that gets downloaded, run and cached by your browser count as "code"? What about a game level for Doom 3? Does that require "install"?

Easy: a webpage is small, so no install required, and a Doom 3 level is big, and so requires an install.

But, keep in mind the RSS screensaver in AOL Explorer (executable code) is smaller than the homepage - do we really mean to imply we can skip the "Install" moniker for small applications? Probably not - Spyware can be written to be QUITE small - usually is, in fact.

Perhaps, then, "install" is for stuff that is COMPILED executable code? But what about a Java applet? Or a dot NET application the runs on the Microsoft CLR? Or Flash Applets (which indeed compile Actionscript to bytecodes)? Aha - perhaps it needs to be NATIVE executable code ... but, (to continue the abstraction) what if you're running in a
Virtual PC session? Are you really "installing" anything in that case? After all, its ALL just "content" to a virtual machine.

Maybe the distinction is that if it "touches" anything on the OS, and by extension the "physical" PC, (i.e. violates some preconcieved notion of "sandboxing") then it is not content - its an application, and therefore requires install?

I guess for now, "Install" is like "Pornography" - I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.

And in the meantime, we (software industry "we") can continue to confuse our users in the name of protecting them.


Anonymous said...

I'd have to disagree to a degree, if you already "installed" the screen saver then to member perception it is INSTALLED, the fact that you set it as default just appears to a member that you are hiding it...making it in effect spyware. Now if it is just a binary that gets triggered then it is internal to the application and is a part of explorer.

Members know these things and assume worse. In member services we fac the same speculation with ACS, Topspeed, and any other "Feature" we include that appears to be "seperate"

Sree Kotay said...

Yeah, I don't disagree ENTIRELY with the perspective Shawn (i.e. I think the label is right, given the climate), but I think we're catering to the vocal few.

I just don't think the notion of "install" matters to most people - its just software. They don't know if its web based, client based, installing, caching, blah, blah.

They *do* care if it does "bad stuff" - either spying stuff or ESPECIALLY changing default passive behaviours (OS settings, default apps, file associations, etc.). So I think we need an explicit action... (I'm NOT saying we would check it by default AT ALL, just as AOL Explorer does
NOT set itself as default browser without user action).

And exposing them to a subtle technical distinction serves what purpose? Other than contibuting to the general purpose "verbal pollution" that a litigious culture (fed by exploitive entrepeneurs - legal and illegal: "hey, if they don't complain, let's push the limits") engenders.

What I mean is: its like EULAs (end user license agreement) in software - they're SO long and complex in the name of (ironically) being disambigous and clear that everyone always clicks through because they're noise. If you WANTED to communicate something meaningful, the EULA is the LAST place you'd put it.

And I think that thinking is creeping into our software...

Anonymous said...

They do care if it does bad stuff but also try to remember that we cater to the people who aren't of the highest technical caliber. Perhaps labling the button "Use RSS Screensaver" and then displaying a MsgBox saying "This will set the RSS Screensaver as your default screen saver" to confirm or refuse perhaps would be better.

Then again...if you're using the AOL Explorer and take the time to find RSS feeds to use and take the time to click the button, these are all things you probably aren't too concerned about to begin with.

Though what you said about EULAs are true. We see this in Knowledge Management. We make things so simple that they become 18 or so steps eventually the member says "Nevermind I'll just call member services". The members way of clicking "Next" in the Technical Support Realm

Dan O'Connell said...

Just to let you know, it does actually "install" the screensaver. If you install AOL Explorer, it does not put the screensaver into your system32 directory until you click on the install screensaver button from the feeds panel. It's on your system, but not in a usable state(since it has to be in the windows system32 directory) until you push the button. OK, so maybe after that install is not the right word(though it will copy over :-))

Anonymous said...

This is a good thing to debate in the interest of consistency. As AOL blurs the line between web and client applications, getting this right is important.

When I installed the 1.5 beta (big ups to the AE team...this build has been solid on my machines), and I discovered the install button - it made immediate sense as to what it did: it added a screen saver to my system.

Consistency wise, it's a departure from AE 1.1's "Download Desktop Search"..but I think install is a better term. Firefox uses that nomenclature for all of it's plug-ins and it makes sense - installing something changes an aspect of my system, be it an application or the OS.

Any way you slice it, after installing the RSS Screen Saver on my office PC - I've had *many* people comment on the coolness of it, and inquire where they could get it :-)

Sree Kotay said...

Dan: and what happens the second time you hit the button (after you've switched to some other screensaver for a while, and now want the feeds one back?)

What I'm getting at is... its goofy. Its *right* (probably and sadly) but goofy :)

Sree Kotay said...

Matt: glad you like it :) I think "install" will drive DOWN usage for little (real) benefit to users. But I agree that given the abuse of trust (by companies big and small), I think its the right call...

For example, I don't think anyone asked for the "Try AOL" icon on your desktop that AIM puts there upon its installation.

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