I had a TEDTalk recommended to me a few months ago called “The Paradox of Choice” and it’s one of those must read books for people who want to do effective UI design. It’s a very good scientific explanation of why presenting users with millions of choices is a bad idea.
The first problem is that we can end up paralysing users with choices they can’t make because they don’t have the information or skill available to correctly decide what to enter.
The best way to solve this of course is to make intelligent choices on behalf of the user. Either by not presenting them with dialogs at all (thus not blocking their progress) or by setting reasonable defaults in all boxes. There is a third option, which is to make each option an idea and mix together using dialectics: so non-compatible options are not shown at the same time, symmetrical choices are collapsed and non-essential options deprecated from view but not eliminated.
The second problem of course is that the more options we present to the user the more unhappy they will be with the choice they finally do make. Because the choice puts an expectation in the user’s mind that the result should be perfect.
Take for instance the number of choices available on Gnome Look for window decoration and themes. The problem is that there are thousands of possible themes to choose from and no matter what you pick, none of them are going to be perfect.
What’s more damaging to the spirit is the difficulty of trying out all these options, there is not automatic installer for them, they’re not packaged correctly, most of them are hosted on unreliable sites, everyone of them is different and confusing to set up right.
If we want to allow users to make good choices to suite their tastes, then we must make those choices easy to experience and discard. The experience of choosing can’t be inconsistent as in the case of gnome look as that just makes us feel worse that we failed because we weren’t able to put up with the problems more in order to find the perfect theme. Lower the barriers to change and people will be a little more happy with the choice.
Now to the dark side of limiting choices. Of course removing all choice can be bad and my example is Canonical’s Ayatana group. They have proven that it’s very easy to get confused between removing blocking choices (where the user can’t proceed without making a choice) and removing all choice completely which limits experimentation. Gone is the good design of choice and in it’s place is the policy of eradicating it systematically.
But there are users who are more experimental and they want to see options and choices because they want to poke at the system and see if they can come up with a more useful, more efficient, more poetic interface than the default. What ends up happening though is that by removing all options we force opportunistic experimenters to become programmers*. Most do not want that kind of burden and will simply not experiment at all, to the detriment of advancement in design.
I believe these opportunistic experimenters are a healthy part of the community, they bring new ideas and thoughts into the community dialectic system. We should encourage non-blocking, non-visible options as much as possible to foster this community.
What are your thoughts?
* Editors take existing things and rework them into something new, Artists take a blank canvas and create from their mind. Bug fixers are more editors, project creators are more artists, but everyone does both to some degree.