Writing descriptions for package managers: keep it short and say what it does

In previous posts, I explained how users use short descriptions as the first filter to pick what software packages are right for them. The other features to help users choose a package from the many options are used to differentiate between those options that remain. Of these features, the most significant was long descriptions.

All package managers I studied, except for Puppy Package Manager and QuickPET, provided a long description, either in a separate pane of the main view or in a separate “more details” view. Two methods were used to evaluate the long descriptions. First, qualitative observations were made during the user studies. Secondly, the descriptions for a small sample of applications were taken from each package manager.

The sample was selected from audio players and related packages. For the open source package managers, I used the same or equivalent packages across package managers. In a couple of cases the package was not available on one of the package managers, in which case that package was not considered for that package manager. Apple’s App Store does not have any of the same packages as the open source package managers, so the first five hits for a search of “music players” were used instead.

The packages in the sample for the open source package managers were:

  • Totem
  • Totem-Plugins (not available on Fedora)
  • RhythmBox
  • Audacious (not available on openSUSE)
  • Amarok

The packages in the sample for Apple’s App Store were:

  • Huesic Colour Music Player Pro
  • LP Player
  • ITablePro Tabla Tanpura Player
  • click.clock HD with music playback controls
  • MySpace Music Romeo

The open source package managers had descriptions of differing lengths but the styles were all very similar. Each provided a factual description of what the software is, and was heavily oriented toward the specific features of the package. In many cases the bulk of the description was a bullet list of features. The descriptions in the Apple App Store had a very different style and tone. The descriptions in the App Store resembled advertising copy and sometimes also contained elements of an instruction manual.

Example from Totem on Synaptic:

Totem is a simple yet featureful media player for GNOME which can read a large number of file formats. It features :
* Shoutcast, m3u, asx, SMIL and ra playlists support
* DVD (with menus), VCD and Digital CD (with CDDB) playback
* TV-Out configuration with optional resolution switching
* 4.0, 5.0, 5.1 and stereo audio output
* Full-screen mode (move your mouse and you get nice controls) with …

Example from Huesic Colour Music Player Pro on Apple’s App Store:

This app was featured in the app “The Big App Show” in a 3 minute long presentation – check it out for an overview of how the app works! Ever wanted to try out a completely different approach to music organization? Try this app, it will change the way you organize and play back music forever! Huesic makes it possible to organise your music by tagging tracks with a colour you feel is appropriate for the song. Playing a group of songs is as simple as choosing a colour on your personalised colour map! …

The average length of the descriptions in the App Store was also much longer than in the open source package managers:

Number of Words in a Sample of Long Descriptions
Package Manager Name Min Max Mean
Ubuntu Software Center 54 178 120
Synaptic Package Manager 54 178 120
Linux Mint Software Manager 54 178 120
Fedora Add/Remove Software 36 57 46
openSUSE YaST 18 30 24
Apple App Store 130 528 286

The effectiveness of the different lengths and styles of descriptions are hard to determine quantitatively from the data I collected. We do know that users spend less time reading longer text, which was anecdotally observed in the user studies. Users often did not read all of the description when the description was long.

Qualitative observations may be more useful here. In many cases, a user rejected a package that would have been a suitable choice after reading the long description. The number one reason was that the description led the user to believe that the package would not suit their purposes, even though it would. The biggest cause of this was descriptions that did not clearly indicate what the application does.

For example, when users were looking for an MP3 player on Apple’s App Store, most search results turned up Huesic Colour Music Player Pro, which would have served their purposes. However, none of the users chose this application. The reason: the description does not explicitly state that it plays mp3s. Many users were left assuming that Huesic was merely a tool for organizing music, and might not actually support playback. Similar issues were raised by music players that billed themselves as “media managers.” Users expressed skepticism that a “media manager” would play music, and the descriptions, emphasizing their organization features, did not convince users that the package supported music playback.

The design implications for long descriptions are clear: Obey the normal usability guidelines for writing text on the web, since users may not read the entire description, and make it very clear what the software actually does. In the case of Huesic Colour Music Player Pro, the two word description “Plays mp3s,” would likely have resulted in more downloads than the 209 words of advertising and instruction manual it was using when I did these user studies.

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2 Responses to Writing descriptions for package managers: keep it short and say what it does

  1. Pingback: Jargon confuses users and hinders package selection | Brendon Robinson's Blog

  2. Pingback: Packaging separately leads to better discovery and less fart apps | Brendon Robinson's Blog

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