I spend a lot of my time downloading and evaluating software. Over the years I realise I’ve accumulated a set of indicators that allow me to rapidly assess the quality without getting into the full horror of detailed evaluation. Here’s my top list in no particular order,
- Platform support: Broad platform support immediately says “I’m mature”, product should run on at least Windows and Linux. If it runs on OS-X then you know they have really thought about portability.
- Installer: It should have one. RPMs or equivalent for Linux, .MSI files for windows. The installer should run without giving you a grand jury Q&A and should have sensible defaults. It should provide the option to install in a non-default location and it should work in that location. The uninstaller should work as well, needless to say. Installer’s called install.exe get a failing mark. likewise setup.exe.
- Use of Colour: If the first thing that strikes you is that you weren’t sure your computer could render that many colours, then you are suffering from “my first GUI” syndrome. Apple is the past master in the use of colour. Grab a Mac and take it for a spin if you need some guidance.
- Opening Screen:If I have to go hunting around the menus to work out what to do with the friggin product, you lose. The number of times I install a new product run it up and am left thinking what now? Do something with those vital first 5 minutes of contact when you have the users undivided attention. You can always turn it off later. Offer training, tutorials, a flash demo, an example, anything but that blank screen.
- Preferences Dialog: When I get the blank screen I immediately cut over to the preferences dialog. If there isn’t one, we are probably going to exit the evaluation fairly shortly. A non-existent preferences dialog or one with one radio box says “we haven’t had enough users or used it enough ourselves to want or need variation in how the product is used”.
- Fonts: Joe’s law of font size states that the size of fonts in a product are directly proportional to the products maturity. Anybody remember those Brain damaged Java 1.1 AWT GUIs.
- Window Resizing: What happens when you resize the window? If half the content disappears or the layout explodes, time to test the uninstaller.
- Online Help: If the help is good it can remedy all ills, if there is no help then this product better be easier to use than a teaspoon.
- Toolbars: Icons in toolbars follow Joe’s law of font size pretty closely. I’ve never been a big fan of icons, I’ve been using Word for about ten years and I still have to mouse over then icon to work out what it does. So if you have to have icons, make ’em small and make sure they can be configured with text labels (see preferences dialog commentary above).
- Do the key features work: I downloaded flock but stopped using it because I couldn’t blog from it (one of the key advertised features). Try the stuff that should work easily, if it bails on that then its for the bin.
If you get this far and its still installed. Then you probably have something worth more serious evaluation.