Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Don't Ask!

We need to stop asking users so many questions. To put it simply, every question that we ask users is a question that we couldn't answer during development. Every option in the Preferences dialog box is a question that we couldn't answer. When we ask a user a question that they don't understand or that they don't know how to answer, it's an opportunity for them to leave. At a minimum, they'll be frustrated.

In general, the fewer questions we ask users, the better off they are.

The problem is quantity.

Have you ever looked at the Options dialog in Microsoft Outlook? (I'm using Outlook 2003). In the Options dialog and in the numerous subdialogs reachable from it, there are well over 200 different options that you can set. They have 80 icons! Do they seriously think that anybody is going to look through and set all of those options?

It's not like Outlook is alone. The Options dialog in Microsoft Word 2003 has even more (though they managed to do it with just 3 icons).

Exercise for the reader: Check out the Options/Settings/Preferences dialog in your favorite applications. Give yourself bonus points for every application with more than 100 options. Double bonus points for applications with more than 200 options.

No, the problem is quality.

The problem isn't just quantity -- there are so many inexplicable options it's hard to pick which examples I want to use. We have the ones that don't explain what they actually mean, like Word's "Allow fast saves" option (nah, I like my word processor slow), those that use terms that have no meaning, like Outlook's "Read all standard mail in plain text" (gee, I thought all my mail was standard, except for the spam, of course).

I have friends who won't order in a restaurant until they find a mistake on the menu. They've never been unable to order. If you made a rule that you couldn't use an application until you found one option that you didn't understand, I daresay there wouldn't be a single application you'd have to avoid.

Do the right thing.

I'm not trying to say that we shouldn't ask any questions and that we shouldn't have any user preferences. But, whenever we're tempted to put something in preferences, we should really ask ourselves if we can figure out what the right thing is. If we can, we should just do it. And if the item really is a matter of taste -- a personal preference that the user might have for how we do something -- then, and only then, we should ask the user.