Manifold GIS installation and different aspects of usability

As part of the work on community mapping in Hackney Wick, we used the area for a project with the Development Planning Unit MSc students. As part of this work, and since we’re using Manifold GIS in this project, we offered the students the use of Manifold GIS for this exercise.

From an experienced system administrator perspective, installing the package and linking it to the licence server is a very quick and easy task. However, for the students it proved to be a difficult task – especially with Windows Vista where special procedures must be followed to enable the administrator account and install Manifold GIS. The process is rather scary for the average user, and the information architecture and links on the Manifold website are not clear enough to guide a novice, non-technical user through the installation process. As a result, many didn’t manage to make the package work. After a brief explanation and being pointed in the right direction, the installation issue was resolved.

This is a very interesting aspect of usability which, many times, is overlooked. When looking at a GIS or a component of geotechnology, it is worth evaluating its usability for different audiences. With software, I would differentiate between ‘end-user’, ‘programmer’ and ‘system manager’ usability. For each of these archetypes it is possible to evaluate whether the package is easy to use for this role. For example, programmer usability can be evaluated by examining how long it takes for a programmer to learn how to manipulate the system and perform a task with it. The new generation of APIs such as those that are used by OpenStreetMap or Google Maps are very programmer usable – it takes very little time to learn them and achieve something useful with the system.

The installation of Manifold GIS, therefore, scores high on system manager usability, but low on end-user usability – and, importantly, there are far more of the latter than the former. Some small changes to the website with a clear installation guide can improve the situation significantly, but a real change to the installation process that removes the need to switch to the administrator account is the real solution…

Published by

mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

3 thoughts on “Manifold GIS installation and different aspects of usability”

  1. The Manifold installation isn’t the easiest I’ve seen, but neither is it the worst (try installing Oracle DB enterprise edition on your PC!). The Vista problem isn’t really a Manifold-specific issue anyway. Many software packages need to be installed by “administrators”, and the Vista UAC system is well-known for making this harder, which is why many people disable UAC altogether (with the various security risks that might entail). As for whether this is too difficult for students, as a recent MSc graduate in GIS, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect students in a fairly technical discipline to be able to install a Windows software package at least for personal use (one of the great things about Manifold is that you get enterprise functionality at home user prices). But I am inclined to agree that Manifold certainly has its own distinctive usability spectrum, and I’m still struggling as an end-user!

  2. Chris, thanks for the comment – you seem to misunderstood the point. The Vista problem is a problem of companies, like Manifold, who didn’t bother to understand how the user’s environment is going to look like under Vista and make their products install easily. Many companies managed to do it and there are many products that are installed on Vista without difficulties. I’ve been using Vista with UAC on – partially because I’m interest in how the experience of the general user looks like.

    To clarify, the students that tried to use Manifold were not studying GIS – but development planning. It’s time to understand that most people who are using software are not fairly technical, and we should find a way to make things work for them.

  3. OK, I see your point. Still, ArcGIS Desktop was even worse, especially the third-party licence manager, and many open-source GIS tools are pretty hard to install/configure, so anybody wanting to use GIS seems to face similar problems, unfortunately. The problem, especially in a market like GIS with only a few providers, is that manufacturers can get away with it because where else are you going to go?

    I suspect the Manifold view would be that they aim their product at technical people (they do seem to be rather full of their own cleverness) anyway, so if you can’t install it they don’t think you should be using it!

    So I’m also in strong agreement with your related point over the user-friendliness (or rather lack thereof) in Manifold’s documentation for new users. There is some good material in there, but it’s often hard to find and with a very nasty user interface. This is one area where ESRI is rather more successful e.g. with its online help and Virtual Campus tutorials etc. But at those prices you’d expect it to be, of course.

    Mind you, our own dear Ordnance Survey and Digimap are not exactly models of usability, either. You’ve got your work cut out on this one…

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