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There are some Windows software packages out there (ie Eclipse, VLC prior to its current version) that do not rely on an installation wizard. Instead of using a wizard there is simply a folder with all of the necessary components, from which you run the software. At no point is it actually considered "installed" by Windows. What is the impact on the user's experience? Many have become accustomed to installing software through a wizard, does this confuse people? Granted the two products mentioned are geared towards more technical people, is there any research that sheds light on the installation process?

UPDATE: Mac OS X often uses a process that involves dragging a folder to the Applications folder, but OS X recognizes these applications as "installed". This is Apple's simplified version of an installer (although it does often require a few screens of options). This process is expected by mac users. However, Windows users are accustomed to a multi-step wizard.

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Most OSX software is the same...drag to folder, run. I have no research, but assume it's a benefit...just less hoops to jump through for the user. –  DA01 Mar 16 '12 at 14:30
    
@DA01 Thanks I added that into the question. I have an iMac at home so I know exactly what you're talking about :). –  Matt Rockwell Mar 16 '12 at 14:38
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5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Note that Eclipse and VLC are both oriented more for a techy crowd. Hand-holding install wizards help you by creating the Start Menu/Desktop shortcuts in Windows that most users are familiar with. Techy users don't need the hand holding, and they know to go into the folder and look for the executable file; not all users would be able to figure this out.

Losing the install wizard significantly speeds up the process as well, so really there's lots of benefits to booting the install wizard. It's mainly useful as a convention only.

There are lots of technical benefits as well to a single-folder "install", which result in many less headaches for users; no registry keys to corrupt, the install is 100% portable, it can be run on a flash drive, it's easy to delete.

Many less tech-savvy users benefit from the install process only because they're familiar with it, really an install-free process has benefits for user and program. Ideally one could use the App Store approach however, and users would have a one-click install process that DOES give the desktop icon/ect that are familiar benefits of installation wizard-style installs.

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Ben, are there any circumstances where an installer would help because users fear a 'transient' installation of an application? I'm trying to think of an actual example, but nothing comes to mind except perhaps security and performance controlling applications, which might benefit from appearing 'embedded' into the client's machine. –  Jimmy Breck-McKye Mar 16 '12 at 17:28
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Software that runs without the need for large external dependencies can often be packaged into a single EXE. The main thing here is that in these cases an installer is an unnecessary step for the most part. And of course, whenever you can eliminate an unnecessary step you're lowering the barrier to entry.

On the other hand, there are a few advantages of a well-designed installer...

  1. The installer can check for dependencies prior to installing the application and even download and install missing components for you.
  2. The installer neatly packages all files, shortcuts, file associations so the user doesn't have to do it themselves.
  3. Because the installer takes care of all of these things for the user, there's a greater chance that the application will "just work" in the end.
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The application can check its own dependencies and simply show a long 'waiting' screen while they are downloading. So these arguments are not that strong. –  Barfieldmv Mar 16 '12 at 14:37
    
@Barfieldmv - Sometimes this will surely be possible. Other times there may practical reasons why you wouldn't want to do this. For example, a .NET application requires the .NET Framework to be installed. The installers I've built with NSIS will automatically download & install the latest version of .NET if necessary. I think to pull that off without an installer would require two executables (one would be an unmanaged "launcher" application.) –  Steve Wortham Mar 16 '12 at 14:45
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The first thing that came to mind was Apple's shift from .pkg installers to drag-and-drop .app installation years ago. To take from Apple's own documentaiton:

People who take finished product files and create installation packages for them are known as packagers. With PackageMaker, packagers accomplish these objectives:

  1. Enclose a software product in a transport-agnostic container for delivery to users
  2. Define the user install experience
  3. Specify how product files are placed on the user’s file system

Following from 3, which I consider most relevant to package installers/wizards:

You should read this document if you have a software product that you want to deliver to its users in a way that allows you to define certain aspects of the user install experience and details about how the product files are to be placed on the user’s file system.

Package installers were typically used because they had to place files like libraries and headers all over the filesystem, or to create a folder structures in several places in the filesystem.

Simply put, if your application has no need to modify either package sub-sets or placement of a directory structure, you can easily do away with the wizard.

I came across this (somewhat ranty) article directly comparing the two installation methods.

One caveat I have noticed with drag-and-drop installation, particularly with Apple disk images (.dmg) and users with very limited technical knowledge: the user will often run the application from the mounted disk image rather than dropping it into the /Applications folder and running it from there. This is why so many of those packages have a folder window background image with instructions, and an alias to the /Applications folder...

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+1 for the caveat part! –  Matt Rockwell Mar 16 '12 at 14:48
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Benefits to no install wizard:

  • Speed: No installation wizard typically means you can get the application running quickly
  • Portability/customization: Files can be on a USB drive
  • Minimal OS footprint

Cons:

  • Users need to understand their file system
  • Users need to setup their own shortcuts
  • Users might get confused with lack of uninstall
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An important distinction is that an installer will require the user to have admin permissions on the target computer while a simple executable file doesn't. If your audience is made up of people who do not have admin permissions, the non-installer option allows them to access your application without requiring a system admin to come and install it for them. VMWare has a product called ThinApp that will package an application that would normally require an installer in a manner that eliminates the need for the installer. They use the term Application Virtualization.

Microsoft AppV and Citrix XenApp have similar capabilities, but seem to be geared strictly towards enterprise IT staff rolling out applications internally.

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