Why make even a few users nervous if you don’t have to?

I’m restoring the original software on my HP tx1218 tonight and came across something I found amusing: HP makes driver installer, called the File Based Installer. Now this doesn’t seem all that amusing, and in itself it isn’t, but note the initials, it’s going to be relevant. And at least mildly interesting.

The way a Vista computer gets restored is by a two-step process:

  1. Windows Vista is installed off the CD
  2. The manufacturer then has Vista run an installer which runs until all the devices on the PC are installed.
  3. Every time an installer needs a restart, the computer restarts, and the installer picks up where it left off.
  4. Your PC will restart. And restart. And restart.

This will go on for hours, and the hard disk is spinning the whole time. What this means is that the computer is on, you see your desktop, but if you try and actually use your computer by starting an application the computer is so slow and unresponsive it’s not useable. All you see is an item in your taskbar that shows the name of the installer.

This is where it gets funny. It’s the File Based Installer Graphical User Interface Manager. But that would be too long for an application name, so they used acronyms. As a result the installer application is called “FBI Gui Manager”.

So your computer is on but you can’t really use it, and that seems because of a program called “FBI Gui Manager”; you can’t stop this application, and to top it off it doesn’t have an interface, so if you click on it you don’t see a window. You hear your hard drive working constantly, and if you have a laptop you notice that it’s grown hot, and the fan is constantly running at maximum flow as well. And it literally runs for hours. Take this situation, add a user who’s a bit paranoid, combine with the relatively-recent attention to the whole “warrantless wiretapping” stories that have been coming out of the United States, and you have the potential to make a lot of your users very uncomfortable indeed!

And indeed there are a few posts on blogs and question sites from users who are very scared that their computer is being infiltrated by the FBI, or a victim of spyware.

This strikes me as being just plain bad useability.

Now we’re used to this term being used to define the position of elements on a window, or the way one should build interactive elements of applications. So what is the link between this and the name of an application? Well, the first principle of useability, in a very broad sense, is that you should design with your user in mind. And HP really hasn’t followed this principle when it came to designing the user experience of restoring the computer on one’s computer.

In this case, while it is true that you have to be pretty paranoid (and unimaginative, it has to be said) to be made uncomfortable by having a program called “FBI Gui Manager” being in control of your PC, the name is evidently bad useability because it has made some of HP’s customers uncomfortable.

Moreover, there is absolutely no need for this program to have that name. What’s wrong with using the name “Installation Manager” or “HP Installation Manager”? Nothing, that’s what! It’s not difficult in any way to change the name of an installer, even in this age of Vista driver and application signing. This is not a small third-party garage software operation here, HP is a major OEM partner and I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have a certain level of priority with Microsoft when it comes to software signing.

Now perhaps HP wants to use a name for this particular installer to differentiate it from older installers. There’s no reason whatsoever to do this of course, because those restore discs are supposed to be only installable on one specific model (or at least model family) of computer. The only thing a support rep should need to ask is what model the user has.

And frankly, there’s really no need to call the software project “File Base Installer” in the first place. This just has to be the most generic, and hence practically meaningless name I have ever seen in a software project. Apparently no one could be bothered to even remember the name of the company when it was time to give this program a name. As far as I know there is really only one installer in existence that ISN’T file-based, and that’s Java’s Web Start. All other installers get downloaded to your PC and executed from there, even if that process is somewhat obfuscated by the operating system. So as a distinguishing name for this installer application — one used by everyone who needs to reinstall the computer software using the official DVD — “File Based Installer” both fails to be useable in that it says almost nothing about the purpose of the application, and it risks making people uncomfortable because of its unfortunate initials (FBI).

This is not the first time that an abbreviation for the name of a piece of software causes some controversy. The most famous incident in the so-far-short history of computing was a Microsoft memory-resident that would alert you when MS had released a critical update for windows. Unwisely Microsoft decided to call it the Critical Update Notification Tool. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what’s wrong with this name. Now fortunately Microsoft did not name any software using the abbreviation of the name for this infamous piece of software, but enough people noticed that it became an embarassment for Redmond.

The lesson seems simple. Use a little common sense when you name a piece of software, and run the name by a few people. Have more eyes looking at the name and its various permutations, like abbreviations and acronyms.

So, in retrospect, it’s bad useability on many, many levels:

  1. Vista’s installation procedure for OEMs is really not useable. I hope they’ve improved it since the time my recovery CD was initially published.
  2. When you have a program that takes over your computer for several hours, it would be a good idea to give it an interface. At the very least you want to let the user know what’s happening. It’s not difficult and it’s not resource-intensive. It’s the way almost all proper installers run.
  3. The application that runs the installer shows a rather unfortunate name in the taskbar.
  4. The application has the wrong name altogether, which is the cause of #2. It’s too generic and redundant to be distinctive and useful.

The lesson here is that useability is a concept which really should be applied not only to the obvious parts of the computer experience, but to things like application names and the PC restoring process as well. The user doesn’t stop being a user while his computer is restoring, especially when the process lasts for several hours for some hard-to-imagine reason.

Edit: as it turns out the restoring process does not take quite as long as I think, although it will still take well over 1 hour. What happened is that on my initial try the restoring did not work properly, and as a result after it was done the computer went into a ridiculously long cycle of rebooting. How long? Well, I started restoring the PC at 8pm. At 1am I decided that this was just too damn long, so I shut down and started re-restoring, and by the time I saw the laptop again at 8am it had been restored properly. So, it looks like our File-Based Installer needs a little QA as well as better useability…

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