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The confusion behind “How do I install apps on my Mac?”

December 12, 2009

I totally agree with John Gruber’s analysis about the mass confusion that new Mac users experience when trying to install apps on their Mac.

Of course, once you know how to properly install apps on the Mac, it’s really quite simple. No more than 3 or 4 clicks of the mouse, at most! But many new Mac users never even get to the point where they realize that they are installing their apps wrong to begin with. That’s because most of them are not even installing their apps at all, which can cause all sorts of confusion (at best) or unsolvable problems (at worst) on their Macs.

In fact, many new Mac users are downright scared of installing apps on their Mac — why would they want to trash the .dmg file of a program that they just downloaded a few minutes ago? And why would they want to trash that important-looking virtual disk icon? You know, the one that looks very similar to their important USB flash drive? How do they even know what a virtual disk icon is? Will they lose any data by throwing away these things? Why are there 3 hoops to jump through: a .dmg file, then a virtual disk image, then the application icon itself? How has Apple turned this very simple process (for advanced users) into a complicated mess (for new users)?

Now granted, installing apps on the Mac is a walk in the park compared to the paralyzing perplexity and fear-inducing anxiety of installing apps on Windows, which often requires multiple calls to the IT Department to even figure out WHERE the installer file is located, let alone WHICH file is actually the installer. Using Windows is the equivalent of vultures eating you alive… slowly ripping off pieces of your flesh… until you finally stop fighting… and allow yourself to collapse onto the ground… into the jaws of death. Windows is literally hell on earth.

But I digress.

Regardless of how easy and intuitive the Mac is, it still has room for improvement. And I know that installing apps on the Mac is a widespread problem because I see it every single week “in the field” while I’m doing FileMaker consulting in Austin.

I agree that much needs to be done on this front. And as much as I applaud the outstanding efforts that enterprising Mac developers are individually making to change the future of Mac app installation — and I believe that these steps are brilliant and absolutely necessary — I also believe that developers can RIGHT NOW make it easier to install their apps in the meantime, even within the baffling installation paradigm which Apple has created!

How do I know that this is possible? Because of the 2 applications which are most often installed incorrectly on the Mac: Firefox and Skype.

Why are Firefox and Skype the 2 most often mis-installed apps on the Mac?

I’ll show you why.

With all due respect to Firefox developer Alexander Limi (and the rest of the outstanding Mac Firefox team), he has spent a lot of time discussing the myriads of problems and possible solutions to installing apps on the Mac. These are all excellent ideas for the future, but he overlooks the #1 simplest and easiest solution of all that he can implement right now, today, in the meantime: Simply give your users instructions. Just tell the users what to do!

I’m not talking about giving the users instructions in a “read me” file that they will never open; I’m talking about putting the instructions right there in their faces as soon as they download the app. You don’t necessarily need to go through the whole process of creating a dedicated installer program for your app, if you just tell the people what to do.

Let’s take a look at the disk image for Firefox, and you’ll see why almost 100% of my brand new Mac-using clients have installed Firefox incorrectly. (That is, until I go through a Mac training class with them.)

As soon as you download Firefox, this is what pops up on your screen:

This is the problem. If I wasn’t already a top Mac consultant in Los Angeles, I would have NO IDEA what this is all about. Honestly, I wouldn’t even realize that it’s trying to communicate something to me. There is nothing about this image that makes me intuitively think to myself, “Oh, I should drag this Firefox image into my Applications folder”. Sure, there’s an arrow in the middle, but it looks like it’s all part of one big piece of artwork that is meant to be admired for its cool graphics.

In fact, I’ve only seen one disk image that is worse than Firefox’s disk image, and that is Skype’s disk image:

Huh? The arrow in this disk image is barely even visible! And with the addition of a rainbow, a floating city in the sky, some sort of creepy Inspector Gadget hand (or is that a whip?), and a camel enjoying an acid trip, it only emphasizes the point that everything here is artwork that must be ignored… except for the Skype icon itself. So naturally, a user would believe that they should go ahead and double-click on the Skype icon… in fact, it’s really the only sane choice you could make while looking at this screen.

So let’s take a look at developers who actually get this process right.

One program which I have almost always seen installed correctly — even by brand new Mac users — is Fetch! I wonder why this is the case? Let’s take a look at the disk image for Fetch:

Wow! The interface is a tiny bit cluttered with that “Read Me” file sitting there, but overall, this disk image explains exactly what the user needs to do in order to install their application! Brilliant! It clearly lets you know that this application is not yet installed, and that you have to go through a 2-step process in order to install the application! Now it doesn’t go as far as talking the user through ejecting the disk image or throwing away the .dmg file, but this is a great start.

Dropbox gets it right, too, with the same limitations as Fetch above (i.e. doesn’t talk the user through ejecting the disk image or throwing away the .dmg file):

And another developer that takes this same approach is Omni Group. Let’s take a look at the disk image for one of my all-time favorite programs, OmniOutliner:

Not bad. Not really as clear (or as decisive!) as the installers for Fetch and Dropbox, but overall a good effort for users who actually read the text that is presented to them on their screen.

And Chronos takes the same approach with SOHO Notes:

Much better than the OmniOutliner disk image, but not as good as the Fetch disk image.

Now look, I admit that these previous 4 disk images, as great as they are, are not the definitive long-term solution for installing apps on the Mac. They still leave a lot to be desired, namely (1) adding the icon to the dock, (2) ejecting the virtual disk, and (3) trashing the disk image itself. Not to mention: (4) Many users won’t read any instructions at all, no matter how much you wave the instructions in their face!

But these disk images show me that developers can at least do something now about educating their users as to what the installation process is, instead of leaving the user  in the dark about what to do next. I believe that clear instructions would eliminate at least 50% of all installation problems on the Mac, because I’ve seen my clients directly benefit from clear instructions.

Some developers, like the folks at Panic, have addressed this problem by making you download an app as a .zip file, which then expands to become the application sitting in your Downloads folder. I find this approach even more confusing than the disk image approach, because it leaves the user searching for their download, and it enforces the idea that it’s okay to have your apps spread out all over your hard drive. This is okay for many (but not all) apps, but a centralized Applications folder reduces confusion down the road.

So obviously, we still have a very long way to go with making installing apps on the Mac as easy as it is to install apps on the iPhone, and I believe that we need some leadership from Apple on that front. For a platform that is supposed to be as easy and intuitive as the Mac, it’s a shame that installing apps can be so counterintuitive and daunting to new users.

But in the meantime, developers, please give your users instructions on what to do next! 🙂


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. mrreeee permalink
    December 12, 2009 11:07 PM

    Blame Microsoft, not Apple, for people who fear their computers.
    I know numerous expert Windows users who are so afraid they’ll screw up their tenuously stable systems, they avoid trying new things.

    The only thing I blame Apple for is keeping lots of extremely useful features hidden away. For instance, why NOT have a little tutorial on how to properly install and delete applications on your Mac?

    As far as disk images go, I give them a proper name and version number and store them on an external hard drive… just in case I need to reinstall.

  2. December 13, 2009 12:14 AM

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that Microsoft is single-handedly responsible for most of the computer fear and illiteracy in the world. Microsoft has done more to destroy technological progress than any other tech company. Their products are specifically designed to confuse and abuse their users, so that their Microsoft Certified Engineers can get themselves full-time jobs as IT Consultants, further keeping their users in the dark and uneducated. Daniel Eran Dilger of has continuing commentary on Microsoft’s evil ways on a regular basis.

  3. herbertbarrywoodrose permalink
    December 14, 2009 12:19 PM

    I had no idea people were having trouble downloading apps to their Mac! This was one of the chief areas where things had gotten so much easier for me when I made the switch from Windows! But… I had a Mac wiz talk me through my installation and so I never had that moment of panic staring at a new download.

    Recently, while visiting me, my mother had a bunch of work she desperately needed finished. I let her work on my Mac, but she’s a PC person. She’s in the market for a Mac but hasn’t worked on one. In desperation she dove in and got to work. I was surprised at some of the things she didn’t get that I just took for granted – in fact, she downloaded some program (without asking… sigh) and then said it didn’t work. Maybe she did what you outlined above and couldn’t get it working because she’d gotten bad instructions or none at all? I was only grateful it hadn’t worked.

    Of course the real surprise was how much of her work she got finished with minimal help. We had to explain little things to her (how to tell the difference between working in Pages and working in Word for Mac – all the icons look the same to her) but she managed it all and was done a couple of days later. A new user can definitely get a lot done without much instruction, but when the user hits something that is different, and has minimal instruction, they are going to freeze and panic. It’s not anyone’s fault, it IS something to take into consideration. Years of Microsoft treatment do NOT help this, they make it worse. So often on a PC, when you hit that frozen panic point, it is because things actually have gone all to hell – or worse, there isn’t a place on earth to get help. Anyone who has visited Microsoft’s support site knows there’s not only no help there, there’s only confusion.

  4. December 14, 2009 12:41 PM

    Thanks so much for your input. Yeah, Microsoft has turned everybody into frightened children when it comes to touching their computers. Apple makes everybody feel like they are a computer expert in no time, and they encourage experimentation and creativity!


  1. The confusion behind “How do I install apps on my Mac?” « Chicago Mac/PC Support

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