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When sharing a link to a software installer what is the preferred UX pattern, to share a link to a download page or a direct link to the downloadable executable?

Using GIMP as an example...

Context...

  • Sharing website content via email or social media
  • Assume sharing is the result of an action taken by a user who wants to refer another user to a file for download

Primary UX concerns...

  • present a link that is easily copied and shared
  • present a link that an end user will trust, feel safe clicking
  • minimize end user surprise by the action triggered when shared link is clicked

Links to supporting evidence or references are greatly appreciated.

  • Will this link be in a piece of software, a website, or somewhere else? The pattern to use depends on user expectations, which will be different in different contexts. – Matt Champion May 26 '16 at 8:24
  • Also, how do the sharer knows the version of software needed ? – user83776 May 26 '16 at 8:39
  • @MattChampion does my update clarify context sufficiently? – Michael Hogan May 26 '16 at 13:31
  • @olivierGrech in the context of a person using a link to refer another person to a specific download with knowledge of the target OS – Michael Hogan May 26 '16 at 13:33
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If you're sharing the link to someone else's software, you should ask the author of the software product for guidance. Most authors would prefer you to link to a download page rather than the binary itself (usually for advertisement purposes).

If the binary depends on the platform, point to the download page. In your question, the second link would be meaningless for most Windows users who don't know what is that. On the other hand, when I follow the first link, the page shows me a button to download the .exe file; your .tar.bz2 file is mentioned, but one has to scroll a lot before seeing it.

If there are multiple versions available for the same platform (for instance a free version and a trial of a paid version), lead the user to the download page in order for her to know exactly what is being downloaded. Some would like a trial; others would want a free version only.

If an ordinary user needs additional instructions to install the software product, lead her to the download page.

If the app targets non-technical users and the file is an executable, lead to the download page which explains how to run the executable. Some browsers and operating systems make it very painful (for security reasons) to run an executable; a non-technical user can easily be lost, faced with confirmation messages, security warnings, etc.

Only if the installation is straightforward, corresponds to a single version of a single file for the user's platform, doesn't require any instructions and targets users with technical skills, go for a direct link. Make sure users understand that the link points to a file to download. The link such as:

Download Gimp (.tar.gz; 16.5 MB) before continuing the tutorial.

is explicit. On the other hand:

Get the new version of Gimp from our trusted source.

is not, because there is no hint that the link points to the .tar.gz file.

  • To point out the obvious: Before asking the author for guidance, check if the author has already provided guidance. Such guidance comes in two forms: 1) The author asks you to do something. 2) The author's license requires you to do something. For example, some freeware software explicitly forbids hosting the download yourself, whereas GPL software always allows you to do so. After all this, you'll know, "I'm allowed to do X,Y, and Z. The author's preference is for Y and Z." Mind you, none of what I said is UX-related. – Brian May 26 '16 at 13:17
  • The examples you've given for how to present the links are the primary kind of guidance I'm looking for... How to create a sense of trust so the end user feels safe to click the link and isn't surprised. – Michael Hogan May 26 '16 at 13:48
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    I am aware that GIMP is used mostly as an arbitrary example here, but let me add the following: we prefer links to our downloads page, because we can always link to the most current stable version from there. Deep links to specific files can trap users with old versions - please do not do this if you won't have control over the location where you've published at a later time. – Michael Schumacher May 14 '17 at 17:33
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Always the downloads page on the official website. This is so that your users can trust you that the executable comes from a dependable source. If it's available on app stores, also add links to all the supported platforms' app stores, on the page of the app.

  • This is the answer I assume to be correct, however I can't find high quality references to show to others as evidence of correctness. Are you aware of any quality UX references that support always linking to a download page? – Michael Hogan May 28 '16 at 18:34
  • You should look into security research, instead. But I can already tell you there are no papers on the topic of how users identify apps they want and install them securely. I'm currently writing up on a series of interviews with advanced users and their way of making sure they get the real app and not malware is going to the official developer's website. Thus by doing this you ensure that the category of users skilled enough to understand malware will trust that they are getting the real app. – Steve Dodier-Lazaro May 29 '16 at 9:24
  • I don't think novice users have good enough a mental model of security to care about a difference. You might find research showing how they get infected by attempting to download apps. Folk models of Home Security would give you a general idea of why they would fall for fake download websites. As far as I understand it, novice users don't make a connection between the location of a download and being served malware; they'd blame the app for being buggy instead. – Steve Dodier-Lazaro May 29 '16 at 9:26
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This depends a lot on context.

Is this software something that is required to complete an ongoing process?

Is this software something that's not vital but good to have?

Does the software require complex system setup rules?

Does the software operate on it's own or does it require user intervention?

There are plenty more questions like this that you need to answer to find your solution.

Directing users to a download page is a great way to offer them instructions, extra information, help them complete a compatibility check, sign off EULA's, etc.

Direct downloading (no landing page) is also great if your users are not expected to interact directly with the software at all.

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