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Don't Mess With Defaults!

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A somewhat formal survey into computer user habits was conducted by Jared Spool in 2011. An attempt was made to determine to what extent ordinary users attempted to customise their installed software. The results were startling.

Less than 5% of users surveyed had changed any settings at all.

'We embarked on a little experiment', writes Spool. 'We asked a ton of people to send us their settings file for Microsoft Word. At the time, MS Word stored all the settings in a file named something like CONFIG.INI, so we asked people to locate the file on their hard disk and mail it to us. Several hundred folks did just that.'

Spool and his colleagues then wrote a program to analyse the findings. More than 95% had kept the settings in the exact configuration that the program installed in.

'This was particularly curious because some of the program's defaults were notable', writes Spool.

'For example, the program had a feature that would automatically save your work as edited a document, to prevent losing anything in case of a system or program failure. In the default settings for the version we analysed, this feature was disabled. Users had to explicitly turn it on to make it work.'

Considering how often Windows crashes, that's not at all a light matter.

'Of course, this mean that 95% of the users were running with autosave turned off.'

So Spool and his colleagues probed deeper. Why not turn on a feature that's obviously of benefit? Here comes the cruncher.

'When we interviewed a sample of them, they all told us the same thing: they assumed Microsoft had delivered it turned off for a reason, therefore who were they to set it otherwise. Microsoft must know what they are doing, several of the participants told us.'

Bewildering. Microsoft made the features available, yet these rocket science users presumed that Microsoft didn't enable them anyway because they didn't trust their own features? Or what? The boggle minds.

Spool errs a bit in his followup.

'It turns out the reason the feature was disabled in that release was not because they had thought about the user's needs. Instead, it was because a programmer had made a decision to initialise the CONFIG.INI file with all zeroes.'

CONFIG.INI is of course a plain text file. It has no 'zeroes' and 'zeroes' would be not only meaningless to it, but might very likely cause an application crash.

Then too there's the question of whether Word uses any such file. Microsoft began wrapping INI file API calls into the Registry long before Spool's survey in 2011. This made for sloppy Registry storage, as pointed out years ago at Radsoft, but it also meant no files stuffed with data from INI file APIs would be found on disk.

On to demographics.

'We also asked our participants for background information, like age and occupation, to see if that made a difference. It didn't, except one category of people who almost always changed their settings: programmers and designers. They often had changed more than 40% (and some had changed as much as 80%) of the options in the program.'

It's hard to envision programmers mucking with Word in the first place. Designers? Sure. They love to tinker without knowing too much. Levers are always cool for pretenders.

'We've repeated this experiment in various forms over the years. We've found it to be consistently true: users rarely change their settings.'

Almost all software houses try to keep things simple at entry level. Apple's Dock is a perfect example: compare it with its space age predecessor in OPENSTEP. Microsoft often have myriad settings aimed at the more advanced user, but they're turned off so as to not frighten away the less advanced.

The lowest possible common denominator resolves to picking software defaults thought to be 'default' - what most users will want, at least to begin with. The idea that most users shy away from using any alternate settings at all indicates most users don't even investigate what alternatives are available. Discounting for occasional users, that's still a damning situation.


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