New Research on the Usability of Package Managers

From cell phones to the desktop, package managers occupy an increasingly important role in how we acquire and install software. Despite their rapid growth over the past few years, little data is available as to how people use package managers and what impacts their usability. There is no shortage of opinions on the Internet, but thus far both the academic literature and the web community has focused on the technical merits of package managers, the depth of their repositories, and, in the case of application “stores,” the developer-friendliness of the repository’s gatekeepers.

While package managers proliferate, there are no clear, data-supported guidelines for their designers to ensure that the package manager meets the needs of users. One might be tempted to emulate one of the front runners such as Apple’s App Store. As it turns out, Apple’s App Store makes some mistakes that designers would do well to avoid.

A series of usability studies I recently conducted at the University of Waterloo investigated the usability issues that affect package managers most strongly. Along with a myriad of low-level issues that affected specific package managers, a couple of recurring themes emerged from the results: users have difficulty finding the software they are looking for, and evaluating their options. Package managers need to help users find the software they want from repositories containing many thousands of software packages. Each uses certain strategies to deal with the challenges this presents. In future posts, I’ll be breaking down each of the strategies this research has identified, and some of the nuggets that have emerged from the data.

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