Who says?

Recently, I purchased a ready-to-assemble barn for my backyard. Upon opening the package, I found approximately 900 assorted fasteners. When I bought the barn kit, I was attracted by the picture of the happy family on the box. Influenced by the picture, I thought assembling the kit would be easy. Reality set in, however, when I attempted to follow the assembly instructions. After reading the manual, I realized that the people who engineered the product probably had a hand in writing the documentation. Pictures and instructions were included, but they weren't synchronized, so I installed bolts only to have to remove them, then reinstall them. I contacted the manufacturer to get better documentation and haven't heard from the company yet. My user experience with that barn was downright painful. Sound eerily familiar?

Unfortunately, this scenario mirrors standard operating procedure in the computer industry. Advertisements claim that a product is easy to set up or use, but too often these claims aren't true. Users discover after purchasing a product that the product doesn't live up to its advertising. I'd need a calculator to estimate the number of times I've heard the terms easy-to-install or easy-to-use. Most user problems result either from poorly written documentation, no wizard support for initial setup, or inadequate vendor usability testing.

Hundreds of software and hardware products circulate through the Windows NT Magazine Lab each month, and we see disparity between vendors who attempt to make their products easy to use and vendors who don't. Product documentation is important to some users, whereas others refer to Help documents only when a problem occurs. Because users approach products in different ways, vendors need to equip products with as many types of documentation and installation methods as possible.

In talking with vendors on a daily basis, I often hear the comment, "If it's too easy, then users won't take our product seriously." I'm still shocked when I hear that statement, because most people I know want to do their work efficiently and with as little stress as possible. One of the benefits of Windows products is the Windows GUI, and although Windows products leverage the GUI more today than ever before, vendors need to do more work to make products powerful and usable for a wide range of users.

Consider WinZip from Nico Mak, which is the all-time most popular download, with good reason. WinZip comes in a small self-installing executable file. A wizard leads you through clearly explained installation steps. When setup completes, you can choose to run the program in one of two modes: Classic or Wizard. The beauty of this choice is that no matter which mode you choose, you can always click a button that automatically takes you to the other mode. Other great features are the pop-up tips and well-constructed online Help file. You can start out using the Wizard mode until you have worked with the program for a while, then switch to the more powerful Classic mode.

I believe every software manufacturer should compare its product's usability with WinZip's easy installation, well-documented configuration process, and excellent online Help. Users want helpful tools, not tools that waste time and create frustration. Write to me at jcragle@ winntmag.com and share your experiences with product documentation and usability, or the lack thereof. I'll publish the results in a future Lab Guys.