A software wizard or setup assistant is a user interface type that presents a user with a sequence of dialog boxes that lead the user through a series of well-defined steps. Tasks that are complex, infrequently performed, or unfamiliar may be easier to perform using a wizard.
Before the 1990s, "wizard" was a common term for a technical expert, like "hacker." The 1985 textbook Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs was nicknamed the "Wizard Book" for the illustration on its cover; its first chapter says, "A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer's idea of a spirit."
When developing the first version of its desktop publishing software, Microsoft Publisher, around 1991, Microsoft wanted to let users with no graphic design skill make documents that still looked good. Publisher was targeted at non-professionals, and Microsoft figured that, no matter what tools the program had, users wouldn't know what to do with them. Publisher's "Page Wizards" instead provided a set of forms to produce a complete document layout, based on a professionally designed template, which could then be manipulated with the standard tools.
Wizards had been in development at Microsoft for several years before Publisher, notably for Microsoft Access, which wouldn't ship until November 1992. Wizards were intended to learn from how someone used a program and anticipate what they may want to do next, guiding them through more complex sets of tasks by structuring and sequencing them. They also served to teach the product by example. As early as 1989, Microsoft discussed using voice and talking heads as guides, but multimedia-capable hardware was not yet widespread.
The feature spread quickly to other applications. In 1992, Excel 4.0 for Mac introduced wizards for tasks like building crosstab tables; Office 95 introduced the "Answer Wizard" for querying help pages with natural language; and Windows later used wizards for tasks like adding a printer, configuring an Internet connection, or installing new applications. By 2001, wizards had become commonplace in most consumer-oriented operating systems.
On the Mac OS, starting with tools like the Setup Assistant introduced in Mac OS 8.0, similar tools began to be called "assistants" (not to be confused with the Apple Newton's "Assist" feature). The "Setup Assistant" is run when the Macintosh starts up out of the box or after a fresh installation, and a similar process also takes place on Apple iOS. The "Network Setup Assistant" is similar to the Windows "New Connection Wizard." GNOME also refers to its wizards as "assistants". Oracle Designer used wizards for designing applications and databases.
The Microsoft Manual of Style (Version 3.0) advises technical writers to refer to these assistants as "wizards" and to use lowercase letters. But as wizards became ubiquitous, the term disappeared. Apps and websites may use wizard-like guided steps to "onboard" new users or guide them through a task, but these features are often not explicitly labeled a "wizard". Wizards have been criticized for being ponderous, stripping questions of context, and obscuring the underlying operations.
The following screenshots show part of the seven-step installation wizard for Kubuntu 12.04, a free and open-source operating system. Each step is necessary, but unrelated to the others; they are presented one at a time, so as not to overwhelm. The user can go back and forward through the steps; early steps also have an option to quit. Progress through the steps is shown on the left. The last screen has no options or inputs, but shows installation progress and advises the user on what to expect from using the operating system.
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