When is Configurability a Bad Idea?

May 22nd, 2014 by inflectra

What is worse than a product that is not configurable? Answer: a product that is completely configurable. This might seem counter intuitive: don’t we all want to have products that we can control and dictate their behavior? Well, yes, and no. As products become more configurable they often become harder to use, or at least hard to set up.

A long time ago, (in a galaxy far, far away,) you could buy a new PC, turn it on and start using it. Now, when you turn on a new PC it starts asking you questions. Those imaginative engineers sitting in a darkened room somewhere came up with a solution: the “ask me later” option. But while this delays the pain, it causes the dreaded ‘reminder’ message, “Do you want to configure your system now?”

Another option thought up by those designing wizards is the ‘user type’. What type of user are you? If you can tell us, we’ll set it up for you. But how do I really know what type of user I am. Compared to my mother I’m a technical hot shot, but compared to some people I’ve worked with I’m the technical equivalent of a cave man. I need a solution that even a caveman can use it. But no, my new product needs to know definitively what type of user I am. Am I type A; the casual user (I bought a $2000 computer in the hope of seeing email faster, email that I’m only going to delete anyway)? Or am I type B; the user who has dual screens for the same computer (I need to prove to everyone that I can multi-task)? The problem with this solution is that I always want to know what I’m not getting by choosing type C. So, I look at the full configurability options and start making choices, until I am presented with a screen of options that I don’t understand. Hmm… well I can guess I suppose. Or should I admit that I’m not the advanced user I thought I was and go back and choose A after all? Will that work after I’ve made some individual configuration choices? Maybe I’ll just turn it off and come back to it later.

I’m not saying that all configurability is a bad thing; I do like to choose the color of the accent lighting in my car, I can set it to match my mood. Note: don’t talk to me if I’ve set it to red. The problem I have with configurability is that sometimes it just seems as though the designer gave up and made everything configurable. This is just an admission of design ineptitude. “Should it be this way or that way? We don’t know, so we’ll make it configurable.” What they’re really saying is, “we don’t know how best our product should work or appear, we can’t make the decision, we’ll just pass the decision on to the user and avoid the question altogether.” But it is the job of the designer to know how the product should best be used, what it should do or what it should look like. Steve Jobs knew this and he made the tough design decisions so we wouldn’t have to. As a result Apple products tend to be easy to use, even if they can’t be configured 101 different ways. How many ways can you really configure your iPod? Not very many! So, my message to product designers is, don’t make me do your job for you; don’t give me options for everything! Just make it work and I’ll use it.

On the other hand, how would my passengers know whether it’s safe to talk to me?

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