I recently blogged about “Elegant Simplicity” and dumped a bunch of ideas related to simplicity in a stream-of-consciousness brainstorming format. I wanted to revisit some of the ideas that I listed, particularly the software design concept of “wizards”. I’ve built software for many years now and the first wizards I can remember came in the format of installation routines that paused to required user intervention. Like “Please insert next disk”. Yikes, now I’m feeling old because I remember floppy disks. Anyway, these early installation routines were not really what we think of when we think of wizards, but they were wizards nonetheless. Wizards are really just user interface elements that lead the user through a sequence of dialogues. It is typically helpful to use a wizard for any task consisting of many steps, which must be completed in a specific order.
In my experience, wizards are best suited to tasks that are unfamiliar to the user. Hence, wizards are used heavily during the implementation phase of the software lifecycle; when everything is unfamiliar to the user. The interview process in Quickbooks comes to mind as a good implementation wizard. Intuit hides much of the technical accounting decision making process behind relatively easy to understand questions presented to the user. TurboTax also uses extensive question & answer wizards to assist non-accountants with tax preparation. I can’t imagine using a tax preparation application without some type of wizard functionality. However, with these types of wizards the tasks are usually only done once. Most companies do not go through the company setup implementation wizard in Quickbooks more than once. Likewise, most tax preparation software is only used once before the annual April 15th deadline. ;-)
Microsoft also uses wizards so assist with setup and configuration of routine tasks. This is different than the use of wizards discussed above. I have set up many Windows servers, starting with NT through NT 4.0, then 2000 and now 2003. These platforms use wizards (much more effectively in the newer offerings) with differing levels of success. The best thing I like about the typical Microsoft approach to wizards is the ability to turn them off. Once I know how to accomplish a task, it is almost always faster to do it directly, rather than go through a wizard sequence. This is the easy vs. fast conundrum. Wizards make a multi-step task easier by sequentially walking the user through the specific steps. However, once a user knows how to accomplish the task without the wizard, it is faster to just do it directly, and therefore becomes easier than using a wizard. Brad Martineau, our Director of Product Management pointed this out in a recent conversation we were having about making our software more simple to use.
I’m excited to build wizards both to facilitate implementation and to accomplish multi-step tasks that users will perform many times. The later type of wizards will be built such that a user can turn them off. Wizards will definitely help users with our software.
Stay tuned for more postings related to making Infusion CRM elegantly simple and even more fun for our customers to use.