Getting Real: The problem with preferences, interface design, and the customer experience 09 Aug 2005
55 comments Latest by J Miller
At 37signals we’re pretty anti-preference/setting. When we Get Real we try to make informed decisions for the people who use our products so they don’t have to think about preferences or settings or adjustments — they can just use the product and know that the people who built it already thought about the best ways to design it, use it, and view it.
Of course we can’t and don’t want to make every decision, and we do have some preferences here and there, but we really try to avoid them. We see preferences as procrastination — “eh, let the customers worry about it later.” And, yes, from time to time some people complain that the product doesn’t do exactly what they want exactly when they want and exactly how they want, but we can live with a little dissent so long as the vast majority can get down to business without having to tinker.
Building in user-definable preferences and settings also means more software, and we’re all about less software. For every setting you have at least 2 conditions (and often times many more than that). And for every condition you have to present a different interface. Some preferences are small and don’t change the UI much, but when you start combining this preference with that preference your customers will quickly end up seeing a screen you’ve probably never seen. Are you comfortable, as a product developer, delivering a screen you’ve never seen?
And that’s the point I want to make. One of the hidden dangers of highly customized software, and products flush with preferences, is that it becomes very difficult to craft an ideal customer experience. If you have 10-20 preferences, each with a few different options, you can pretty quickly build up hundreds of different display scenarios. And while you can test the software side, it’s exceedingly difficult to test the experience and interface side. Have you ever seen choice 3 of preference 7 combined with choice 1 of preference 12 along with choice 5 of preference 4 and choice 2 of preference 9?
So, be careful when you add preferences. Preferences aren’t free. Each one adds a little more uncertainty to the customer experience you are selling. The goal is to find the balance that best suits you and your customers, but don’t always assume more customer control is the better choice.