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I have encountered this annoyance a thousand times when installing software: setting the path on where to install the software.

Too many times have I been into the trouble of cleaning up a messy installation. I remember one time when I was installing that hex editor in which I specified the installation directory different to the default. I have set it to my custom programs-directory, D:\Programs\. That is when my head started to ache: the directory's now full of garbage. Filth! .exes and .dlls are what I see most in it, in addition to some folders I have almost mistaken for crapwares.

Now I am more careful, and paranoid. I now put my installs in their own container directories, in subdirectories of D:\Programs\. Still, carefulness has its price. I now encounter more "double directory" installs than the number of mess-prevented installs.

Here is my point: How should I prompt the user for installation directories, especially if they are required to set it? How can I make the request more intuitive and less error prone?

Note that I also mean this for save directories, configurations, etc.

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My suggestion: don't ask at all. Why would you want to bother users with choosing an installation directory at all? Just choose a decent one, and use that. I don't find the many-step click-through install wizards on Windows a shining example of good UX, at least. –  André Jan 29 '13 at 8:48
    
@André What about save directories, configurations, settings, etc.? –  Mark Garcia Jan 29 '13 at 8:50
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What I have found usable in such cases, is have the application immediately add the directory it tags on to the widget that displays the path after selecting it. Also, you could be a bit clever: don't tag on the application name, if the user already selected an empty or non-existent directory (that contains the application name). That way, the user can always see what is about to happen, and correct a mistake if needed. –  André Jan 29 '13 at 8:53
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Most operating systems have a dialog box specifically for this, and this is what should be used. The dialog box usually looks much like a file selection dialog, but only directories can be selected with it.

There are other answers to your question that suggest to not give the user the option to specify the directory. This is generally a bad idea. I've seen people stop the process and spend 20 minutes trying to figure out how to specify the directory they want, and get angry when they discover they can't. There are a few cases in which the user shouldn't be able to specify the directory, that is the software won't work unless files are in a specific directory, but outside of those cases the user should have control. The directory choosing dialog box can be set to a default directory as a suggestion, but (in most cases) the user should be able to choose.

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Here is my point: How should I prompt the user for installation directories, especially if they are required to set it? How can I make the request more intuitive and less error prone?

You shouldn't. Use default path!

Look at Mac OS X. It has one of the simplest installation procedure I've ever seen (now it's often done through App Store which always installs apps into the Application folder):

enter image description here

You just need to drag and drop an App to the Applications folder symlink. That's all.

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