VMware First User Experience

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  • Designed and usability tested a set of Getting Started tabs and tutorials to help new and entry level IT administrators learn how create and manage virtual machines with vSphere.
  • Wrote a case study for “User-Centered Design Stories: Real World UCD Case Studies” edited by Carol Righi and Janice James, May 2007

The Scenario

It’s 2007 and VMware has grown from a tiny startup to a virtualization leader naming all Fortune 1000 companies among its customer base.  The core enterprise product, vSphere, (known then as VI3) was in its third version.  IT admins the world over are utilizing this desktop application in their datacenters to manage their growing virtual infrastructure.  VMware continues to add new, amazing functionality that these users desperately need.

The Problem

The competition, notably Microsoft and Citrix (who bought open-source research project Xen) are starting to take notice and plan to offer free hypervisors, aimed at the low-end virtualization market. Neither can compete with VMware in features, but VMware realizes it needs to provide an offering at the low-end price point, where it has little market share.

vSphere is a large and powerful desktop application, but setting it up can be a daunting task. ESX needs to be installed on the physical servers, vSphere installed on the desktop, a virtual datacenter created, the servers added so vSphere can manage them, and lastly – the step the user is most interested in – virtual machines need to be created and a guest operating system installed on them – all before the user can use their VMs.

How can we improve this multi-step process to help the user successfully create their first VM before they give up and try something else?

What We Explored

Originally, we considered creating a separate, lightweight product that would not contain many of the high-end features, but would allow small mom-and-pop operations with just one or two servers to experiment with virtualization and see what it could do for them. We would automatically create a single virtual datacenter, provide servers already populated with the VMware hypervisor, ESX, and make creating a virtual machine a single-step operation. Boom, done. But, of course, reality and time constraints always get in the way.

The Solution

Without the ability to change the existing workflow, we decided that guided discovery would be the next best solution. I designed what we called “Getting Started tabs” that would detect the state of the infrastructure (Is there a datacenter? A server? Any existing VMs?) The Getting Started tab would offer instructions on how to proceed from each of these points.

Initial Getting Started Page 600

Getting Started tab initial view – Desktop Client


The Getting Started tab was added to the left of the content tabs to make it visible and emphasize its importance.  The tab was selected by default if the user did not have the necessary inventory objects (a Datacenter in Step 1, a Host in Step 2, or a Virtual Machine in Step 3.)

The Getting Started tab was designed with 5 regions:

  1. The step list across the top showing which step the user is currently on
  2. The description explaining the object
  3. An image showing how the object fits into the virtual world
  4. The task that can be done at this step
  5. Any tutorials that are available

This process was designed for the very first use and it detects which objects exist and which do not and displays the appropriate Getting Started page.  If the user has already created the initial objects (Datacenter, Host, and VM), then the Getting Started tab switch to more generic content.

Getting Started Ongoing View - Web Client

Getting Started Ongoing View – Web Client

Along with the Getting Started page, we also developed a comprehensive tutorial that would provide the user with more information about the different objects in the system as well as more detailed step-by-step instructions for installation and wizards. Unlike regular online documentation, this tutorial allow the user to explore topics in a guided fashion (now that you know about x, you might be interested to learn more about y and z.)

Getting Started Guided Topic Tutorial

Getting Started Guided Topic Tutorial

This was a good solution because:

(based on feedback from a user study I conducted with 4 internal new hires and 2 customers.)

  • Getting started tabs provide a useful introduction and guided the user though creating a blank virtual machine successfully
  • Getting started image was helpful in understanding the infrastructure
  • Getting started tabs streamlined choices so the user does not need to figure out what to do next
  • Time to creating the first virtual machine was cut in half.

Big Realization:

The more we could automate for the user, the easier the task became.  But without being able to automate everything (several engineering hurdles), at least narrowing down the possible next step choices for the user proved useful.

Once users learned the tasks explained on the Getting Started tabs, they wanted to be able to hide them.  We added a menu item to Hide/Show all Getting Started tabs.  Additionally we added a close box to each tab so the user could close them individually, thereby leaving the ones they still needed.


As a result of my experience on this project, in 2010 I became responsible for the first user experience (FUE) for the vSphere client as it moved from the desktop to the browser.

Because so many experienced users expressed the desire to remove the Getting Started tabs, I started to explore how we could improve their usefulness beyond the entry level user.  In a future release, we will be adding the ability for the admin to customize these pages, either changing each of the regions but maintaining the general format (description, image, tasks, links) or by adding their own html.  Many customers expressed a strong interest in using this tab for their own VMware Runbooks.

© Copyright 2011-2013 - Deanna McCusker