The verbal and the visual: why the Fedora installer doesn't work

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 26, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Last week, I did a fresh install of Fedora for the first time in several years. The installer, I noticed immediately, had become an example of minimalism -- that is, its screens were heavy on the visual and as light as possible on the words. Almost immediately, I found myself fumbling, trapped in an presentation of information that was foreign to me, and wondering how intellectually limited I must be that I had trouble with such a simple design.

At first, I thought the problem was that I am far more verbally oriented than visually. Unlike many people, I never thought found the Debian installer that difficult -- even before the current version was introduced. If anything, the Debian installer was reassuringly verbose. Yet, at the same time, I regularly buy and re-read graphic novels (even if I don't quite have the nerve to read them on the bus), and I collect Northwest Coast art, so I am not exactly a visual illiterate, either. Although I prefer words when I'm learning, I can easily make do with pictures.

Eventually, as I went over and over the installer for the article I was writing, I realized what the problem was. It was not so much that the designers of Fedora's installer had neglected one form of communication in favor of another. Perhaps it had, but not seriously so.

Rather, the problem was that, in the rush to minimalize, the designers had neglected to provide both verbal and visual clues that would help users navigate the screens. Instead, users are left to trailblaze for themselves -- a relatively simple task, but one that is intensely irritating, because it should not be necessary at all.

Without roadmap or a compass
The Fedora installer starts simply enough with the setting of the language. However, on the next, the problem began. After selecting a language, users find themselves on a screen entitled Installation Summary. Since this is only the second screen, these words are confusing. Has the installer somehow skipped several screens? Then you realize that installer does much of its work behind the scenes. Your task is to make any changes necessary for the installation to begin. Belatedly, you might realize that you can also change the defaults.

The reason for this initial puzzlement is that the Installation Summary offers four icons, arranged alphabetically, but no obvious hint of which you should start with (any, as it turns out). True, a note at the bottom of the page does tell you that items marked with a bright orange icon are incomplete, but this note would be more noticeable at the top of the screen.

Equally puzzling: why is Automatic Partitioning Selected printed in red below Installation Destination? If it is selected (which, despite the message, it is not), shouldn't it be in black like the settings for the other three icons? Or if you need to make choices about this setting, shouldn't the summary be in orange? Since nothing else on the screen is in red, you can't be sure exactly what the meaning of the color might be.

Yet another problem is that the explanation that no changes will be made until you click the Begin Installation button is in the bottom right hand corner of the screen -- where you are least likely to notice it. Inexperienced users need this information at the top of the screen. A reminder near the button doesn't hurt, but placing it beneath the button means that you might not notice it until after you have clicked the button.

Eventually, you realize that, to move ahead, you need to make changes under Installation Destination, and find yourself making partitioning choices. Despite the statement on the Installation Summary, you have to descend several levels just to set the installer to partition automatically.

If you choose to partition manually, you have to move or resize existing partitions before you proceed to customize partitions. The Manual Partitioning screen is relatively straightforward, but although it assumes a knowledge of the procedure, it fails to mention that drive location is left to the installer to detrmine. Users might also wonder why the Reformat box must be selected to format a new drive. Help is available, but from an icon at the bottom of the first pane that is too small to make its purpose plain. And, as on previous screens, the reassurance that no changes will be made yet is in a position where it is easy to miss.

As installation begins, you are switched to the Configuration screen. This screen is organized much like the earlier Installation Summary, but at least by now you understand that you need to select each icon, one at a time, to create a root and ordinary user.

No doubt the current Fedora installer was intended to be simple. However, the lack of navigational markers achieves the opposite effect, making the installation of Fedora harder and longer than that of most major installations.

Principles from the example
In making these comments, I am not attacking Fedora, which remains my second favorite installation. However, I have gone into some details, because, while the Fedora installer shows signs of considerable work, the result would be more effective with greater application of verbal and visual design.

Some of the basic design principles you can derive from the example of the Fedora installer are:

  • Always provide a clear navigation path.
  • Place information where it is needed, not where it fits.
  • Show similarities by positioning similar items together, and by giving them the same color-coding.
  • Always display help prominently.

These principles apply regardless of whether you are designing for the verbally or visually oriented. Their lack make the current Fedora installer ineffective, but, before you ridicule, remember that it is far from the only prominent piece of software that neglects these basic guidelines. It is an example, not an exception.

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