Automatic downloads and usability

I just went to download the latest release of GraffitiCMS (which is rather impressive), when I noticed this on their download page.

Thanks for downloading Graffiti!

We know you’re excited about building your new Graffiti site, but please be patient as your download is being prepared. If you click the link below, you will experience a delay in processing.

If your download doesn’t start after you count to 10 backwards in Roman numerals, please click here.

First, I thought it was interesting that they said "If your download doesn’t start after you count to 10 backwards in Roman numerals, please click here." Then, I started wondering… is this the best way to deliver a download to users?

The "automatic download" is rather ubiquitous — nearly all web sites use it. Some questions I wonder about…

  • What percentage of users get the automatic download? How close to 100% is this number? If it’s far from 100%, should we rethink the approach?
  • For those who do get the automatic download, is it something they are comfortable with? Do they typically respond correctly to the browser’s response ("open/save" prompts, or those silly IE slide-in alert bars that people tend not to see)?
  • For those who don’t get the automatic download, how long does it take them to figure out how to initiate the download manually? What’s the abandon rate?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, but on the surface, I’d think a better approach (using the GraffitiCMS example above) would be to not have an automatic download. Instead, change the text of the page to the below, and have a big [START DOWNLOAD] button.

Your Graffiti download is ready!

We know you’re excited about building your new Graffiti site. Please click the Start Download link below to get your copy of Graffiti.


I wonder if an approach like that is more useful to users, and has a lower abandon rate than the automatic download approach…

0 thoughts on “Automatic downloads and usability

  • I’ve always wondered why sites use this “your download will start automatically” system instead of a direct link to the file. Is it for usability or for technical reasons? Is it to keep a download count? That can be done in other ways. To keep people from linking the file directly from another site? There’s usually a direct link anyway (“Click here if the download doesn’t start in XX seconds.”), so that can’t be it.

    Someone enlighten me 🙂

  • If you want to count downloads, you can either (1) analyze your web traffic logs, or (2) use code to manage the download file request. The latter is the best approach in terms of download tracking management, as you can store other information along with the download itself (session-specific information, such as a logged in user’s username), and you can also keep your downloaded files in a physical disk location that is not directly accessible by the web. As well, with this approach you can implement security on files, since file downloads have to go through some sort of code/web page.

    This is the approach I took when writing a custom CSS for They have thousands of files hosted, some of them private, some of them public. In all cases, files are downloaded through a custom URL, files are stored in a directory remote from the web page, and security permissions can be applied to all downloads.

    Overkill for simple scenarios, but if you need the power, that’s the way to do it.

  • harborpirate says:

    I have to agree with the sentiment that auto-downloads are lame.

    In your example fix I would probably have the [START DOWNLOAD] link prominently displayed at the top of the paragraph, before the “Your Download is Ready” text. Though this is slightly counterintuitive, most users at this point have already figured out that they want to download something, and they already know what it is, so they just want a way to trigger the download actually happening without reading any further. Other users who are not quite sure and would like to read the text can use the secondary link provided in the text. Listing the download link at the top and then again in the text covers both bases and makes everyone happy.

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