A Transition to Online Licensing: Designing the product family experience

Table of Contents

    Project description

    In this project, product management had a vision to transition from traditional licensing to online licensing. At the time, the suite of Toad products were desktop applications that required users to enter lengthy license keys. The keys were coded with expiration dates, but product management had no visibility into which licenses were actively being used or how many people were using them. Neither our customers, nor our product management, knew whether organizations were over, or under, utilizing their set of purchased licenses. Product management also lacked insight into how many freeware installations were actively being used.

    My work was to understand the current state of the licensing, including all of the existing user interfaces, and to design the new, online licensing experience that would track both license and freeware usage.

    Design approach

    To start the project, I completed an internal, research project to learn about:

    • All the different types of licenses, including their expiration strategy
    • How we create and share licenses with customers
    • All of the UI designs that display licensing information
    • Existing UI design workflows for entering and updating license details
    • Reasons why people may have multiple licenses for the same product

    Project management shared their vision for the ideal user experience. After opening any one of our desktop applications, users would login, if it was their first time using the software of if it had been more than 30 days since their last usage. The software would confirm if the user had a valid license. Without a valid license, there were two possible paths: downgrade the capabilities to a freeware version or stop the application from opening.

    Design method

    I met with the individual product managers of each product to understand the licensing intricacies of their product. Each product was using a slightly different approach. I saw demonstrations of the UIs and asked the product managers about their biggest, user interface licensing concerns.

    To generate design ideas, I reviewed other software approaches to online licensing. I looked at both Adobe Creative Cloud and Microsoft’s use of a single login for a suite of products.

    The online licensing project was multi-faceted, so I decomposed the problem into smaller chucks:

    • sign in and sign up, including the first encounter inside the product
    • sign out and switching accounts
    • messaging around downgrade or lack of access, a result of online license validation
    • notification about upcoming expiration dates, a result of online license validation
    • viewing the status of online licenses
    • adding/removing users to online licenses
    • changing a license administrator

    Wireframes were created and evaluated for each aspect before they were implemented.

    Summary of research findings

    Talking with the Product Managers I found that there were a lot of different types of licenses and user interfaces, but some similarities existed across the products:

    • Downloading and installing a free trial of all of our products, a trial license was automatically generated so users could start our software right away
    • All of the products had a UI for adding a commercial key, once a purchase was made
    • Trial licenses and purchased licenses often differed in the features and capabilities they enabled for users
    • Multiple licenses for a single product were common with users having a trial of the latest version alongside their purchased version, or organization purchasing multiple licenses to use the unique capabilities of each
    • Most licenses could be optionally tracked by individual users in an online licensing web application

    Here are some examples of the user interfaces I found in the products:

    Toad for Oracle uses a combination of a lengthy License Key and a Site Message to grant users access to features and capabilities.
    Toad Data Point lists multiple licenses in tabs and explicitly describes how they are applied.
    Toad Edge lists multiple licenses with a table and synchronizes with the online licensing platform with a “Refresh Licenses” button.

    Design: First time experience of online licensing

    To be able to understand and track which licenses were being used and by whom, project management decided to add a login process to all of the Toad products. To limit the need to login, the software would cache the user’s credentials for up to 30 days. For first time use, though, this would be a new and different experience for all users.

    Many of ours downloaded trial software to explore what was new and different in the latest version. I mapped out what this new user flow would look like for a trial download:

    Design: Sign in dialog

    I considered the job our user was trying to accomplish – download a trial version and try our software. Because the sign in/sign up steps were not expected, the design needed to explain why they needed to sign into an account to access to the software. I love to refer to this quote by Don Norman, when I’m working on a design:

    What we should do is understand the job the person is trying to do. Don’t try to predict what a human will do. You will get it wrong -Don Norman

    During the usability testing of the page, I found that many participants questioned the user benefit of online licensing. Although most of the benefit was for our business and our larger customers, I included in the design some ideas why having an account could be useful.

    Existing users who upgraded to the latest version were also likely to be surprised by the need to sign in. To address this, I added an extra link on the page that led to detailed information about the new approach.

    Here is an example of the Sign In design for one product, Toad Edge:

    Product specific information appeared on the left and a generic, reusable, sign in screen appeared on the right. The Toad products had their own, familiar branding that differed from the corporate branding. I wanted to use this in the design so that users would be reassured that they had indeed opened a Toad application.

    I also designed alternatives screens, in case the user did not have internet access. Internet access was a requirement to be able to sign in.

    Design: Viewing and managing online licenses

    The online licensing web application allowed all users to view their Toad product licenses. It also allowed license administrators to understand license usage and manage users. Working on the user interface design, I addressed the end users’ goals:

    • What licenses do I have for a particular product?
    • When does a particular license expire?
    • Which capabilities does a particular license include?
    • What level of customer support is included with a particular license?
    • Who should I contact if there is an issue, such as a license expiring soon or a colleague needing access

    I also designed the displays and interactions for license administrators to accomplish their goals:

    • Know which licenses they managed vs. were simply assigned a seat
    • Learn how many seats were included with a particular license
    • Learn how many seats were assigned for a particular license
    • Add one or more users to a license
    • Remove one or more users from a license
    • Replace a licensed user, removing one person and adding another
    • Transfer the administration rights to someone else

    The resulting design used a tabular display:

    Additional details for each license were available on a second screen:

    With the switch to online licensing, I recommended that each of the products remove their various, in-product license displays. I found that these user interfaces had usability issues, did not follow standard interaction patterns, and could quickly get out of sync with the online licensing system.

    If a user added a license to the in-product user interface, the license would not be added to the online licensing system and not appear in the online licensing web application. My suggestion was to modify each product to link to the web application, which could act as a single source of truth and provide details about each license.


    Here is a summary of my impact

    Prior to my involvementMy success stories
    Internal Product Management and our customers had no visibility into license usageLicense owners could easily see how many licenses were purchased and how many people were using each one
    Customers had no visibility into multi-seat license assignmentsLicense owners could easily see how people were assigned, as well as add and remove users
    Users entered 50-character license keys to unlock accessUsers logged on to the product and their logon name determined their access
    License screens had usability issues: lengthy messages, unconventional interactionsAll of the online licensing screens were usability tested to eliminate issues.
    Each product in the product suite had its own UI for entering licensing informationAll products had a consistent experience, using the same screens.


    The transition to online licensing was not a feature for end users, but an organizational change for the business to be able to track license usage. End users would need to login with each trial download and software upgrade, but they benefited by not having to enter lengthy license keys.

    Our customers also benefited as they could now track license usage. My designs allowed license administrators to easily see how many licenses were purchased, how many were being used, and manage the end users assigned to licenses.