Tuesday Jan 22, 2008

Design of the NetBeans download page

Jan Rojcek is the Chief Architect for the NetBeans IDE User Experience, and works directly with the Chief Product Architect at Sun's Offices in Prague, Czech Republic.

Recently we announced a new release of NetBeans IDE, so it seems like the right time to look back at the design of the new NetBeans download page I was involved with. When I started working on this project, it seemed like a straightforward design exercise. Put a few well-named and well-positioned download buttons on the NetBeans.org web site and you're done. I should have been cautious given the NetBeans team's desire for achieving excellent out-of-the-box experience. Here's how it all evolved.

The NetBeans IDE is a very large suite of software used by Java, C/C++ and Ruby developers. Normally we would just offer a single download option similar to other complex software like Office suites. But developers love speed and simple tools and we were also concerned about the download size of the suite which could have been a problem for users with slow and unstable internet connections. So we decided to explore the idea of distributing the suite in a way that would perfectly suit the needs of individual developer. And that's how it all began...

The Online Installer

The obvious idea was to give the user control of selecting individual NetBeans components for download and installation. One of the solutions was to use a so-called online installer. The user downloads the installer, and during installation selects components the installer then downloads and installs. Well, sounds like the right way to go, but not everyone is online during installation. We decided to pursue a Custom Download solution instead...

Custom Download

Another obvious idea was to let the user select the NetBeans components he or she wants to download right on the download page. The only design concern we had was around the fact that it wasn't a very standard way of downloading software. We were not sure if users would understand it and whether they could use it effectively. To find out, we did a usability study where we tested the download page prototype and it turned out to be well received. But a much bigger concern was the actual implementation of this solution as it either involved preparing all possible download combinations in advance (literally terabytes of data) or having an active server that prepares the download based on the individual user's request. As both approaches seemed a little too risky, we decided to try an "editions" solution...

Editions

This is basically a well known way of downloading different configurations, or "editions" of the same product. Each edition has a fixed set of components and the user downloads the edition that works best for him or her. We started with three editions called "Basic", "Standard" and "Full", and used a download page layout that looked like a table with each column representing one edition. That worked okay, but then we decided to align editions better with the needs of our target audience. We ended up with 6 editions: "Java SE", "Web & Java EE", "Mobility", "C/C++", "Ruby" and "All". At this point the table with 6 columns started to look like a brain teaser, which is not what we wanted for an easy product download. Thus we tried a List Layout...

Editions - List Layout

We tried many different layouts of the page to best reflect that the different editions are actually the same product. We also tried to communicate the difference between editions without the need to read the description of each edition five times to notice the difference. All that, plus a vertical space limitation as we wanted to fit all download buttons on the page without vertical scrolling (worse case was ~570px height on 1024x768 screens running Firefox with tabs open). As we were unhappy with the designs we came up with, we went back to the Table Layout...

Editions - Table Layout

The NetBeans Evangelists team felt like the table design best reflects "the only IDE you need" story and it also best describes the difference between editions, so we decided to improve it with better wording and rollover effects. Then we did a usability study and we were quite surprised that the study yielded great results. The download page itself was not an issue at all. Users quickly understood the concept and downloaded what they needed based on their preference. Eventually, we used it for the release of NetBeans IDE 6.0.

Recently we got some positive feedback from a user praising our great download and installation experience, as well as negative feedback citing confusion with the download page where at first sight the user wasn't sure where to click to download NetBeans.

Thinking about this design exercise again and looking at the statistics that majority of users download the "All" bundle, I would tend to say that we should really focus on making the full IDE suite faster, consume less memory, and have simpler menus which would allow us to get rid of the specialized downloads and end up with the simplest and easiest download page with a single download button.

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