Do users change their settings?

Jared Spool

September 14th, 2011

[Thanks to Yaniv Sarig, who translated this post into Hebrew.]

Back in the early days of PC computing, we were interested in how people used all those options, controls, and settings that software designers put into their applications. How much do users customize their applications?

We embarked on a little experiment. 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 that file on their hard disk and email it to us. Several hundred folks did just that.

We then wrote a program to analyze the files, counting up how many people had changed the 150+ settings in the applications and which settings they had changed.

What we found was really interesting. Less than 5% of the users we surveyed had changed any settings at all. 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. 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 analyzed, this feature was disabled. Users had to explicitly turn it on to make it work.

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

We thought about that and wondered what the rationale was for keeping such an important feature turned off. We thought that maybe they were concerned about people running off floppies or those who had slow or small disks. Autosave does have performance implications, so maybe they were optimizing the behavior for the worst case, assuming that users who had the luxury to use the feature would turn it on.

We had friends in the Microsoft Office group, so we asked them about the choice of delivering the feature disabled. We explained our hypothesis about optimizing for performance. They asked around and told us our hypothesis was incorrect.

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 initialize the config.ini file with all zeroes. Making a file filled with zeroes is a quick little program, so that’s what he wrote, assuming that, at some point later, someone would tell him what the “real defaults” should be. Nobody ever got around to telling him.

Since zero in binary means off, the autosave setting, along with a lot of other settings, were automatically disabled. The users’ assumption that Microsoft had given this careful consideration turned out not to be the case.

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 seems programmers and designers like to customize their environment. Who would’ve guessed? Could that be why they chose their profession?

(Big takeaway: If you’re a programmer or designer, then you’re not like most people. Just because you change your settings in apps you use doesn’t mean that your users will, unless they are also programmers and designers.)

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

If your application has settings, have you looked to see what your users do? How many have changed them? Are the defaults the optimal choice? Does your settings screen explain the implications of each setting and give your users a good reason for mucking with the defaults?

54 Responses to “Do users change their settings?”

  1. Niente nuove, buone nuove « raffiro Says:

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  6. Felix Jamestin Says:

    Hey Jared,

    What was the age range of the participants? I’m wondering if young people have a higher propensity to personalize their tools.

    – Felix

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  8. FernandoMiguel Says:

    Once, a designer told me 85% users don’t change their wallpaper.
    Every time I tell that to people they have an hard time to believe me

  9. Jörg Bader Says:

    Well, like in the lyrics of Killswitch Engage’s Declaration:
    “No longer will i let myself be truly satisfied with the standard.”

  10. Emil Pop Says:

    I love this article. This confirms what I know and what I suspected happens on a lerge scale. This is not the programers fault, it is the company/department fault since they don’t test products for usability/bugs thoroughly before release. programmers don’t give a damn about this, they customize their products. Also Microsoft and other companies don’t accept user’s feedback, I don’t know why. I have two examples on my own:

    1. I downloaded IE9 beta when it was released. Soon I discovered that the placement of the search providers at the bottom of the drop down list is bad, becausue they move down after the list is opened as it gets dynamically populated. So when you try to click on one, you click on something else because it just moved down. I tried to submit feedback through the beta program, but I got a message that I’m not “elligible”. Why the hell not! The thing is not fixed even now and is very frustrating. I tried to suggest two possible fixes that are obvious and easy to implement.

    2. I am a server operator. I logon to thousands of servers and the first time a profile is created. In addition the profiles are removed if they’re getting at a certain age. So among other things, I see many times the IE configuration wizard when I logon. While this makes sense on a desktop, it doesn’t make sense at all on a server. Microsoft consistently puts IT pros with casual users in the same bag, frustrating the IT Pros for no reason. Somebody who logs on on a server, especially if part of a domain, should know how to configure their browser and other things without a browser. You would say that a GPO would solve this, but that adds overhead and also apps get upgraded.

    Thanks for this article.

  11. Jared Spool Says:

    Felix: We asked everyone’s age. Turns out age of the participant did not correlate to any behavioral difference.

    People who were young were just as unlikely to change their settings file as older people.

    This has remained true in all the instances we’ve revisited the experiment.


  12. Scott Barnard Says:

    Hi Jared –

    Isn’t part of this dependent the level of exposure given to a setting in an interface? Microsoft does a pretty good job of burying most of the settings. However, if for instance, they added an autosave option to each document and surfaced it in the file save dialog, might it get turned on more easily? Or if I am in another type of interface that surfaces a “view” setting (say a list versus a grid), then that setting might get changed more easily to be my default if it is remembered via cookie or by the application the next time I use it. I guess it depends on what we call a setting and where it is surfaced in the interface.


  13. John Mc Says:

    This is one of those truths that seems so obvious once someone has said it.

    It makes me think about screen resolutions: more than once I’ve seen friends or family using their computer with the screen set up at a ridiculously low resolution and fuzzy as anything.

    Usually, they never even realised they could change the settings. (And why should they? Wouldn’t you have thought your computer’s screen would automatically default to the best settings?)

  14. Henny Swan Says:

    Thanks for this Jared, a really interesting read.

    The first thing that came to mind is what this means for users of assistive technologies such as screen readers. How a screen reader consumes web content ‘out of the box’ can be quite different to how it does once you’ve adjusted your settings.

    Just as browsers render pieces of code differently, especially with newer or evolving technologies such as HTML5, WAI ARIA and so on, so do screen readers. Add settings into the mix and there are a lot of variables that can make life frustrating for both the user and developer. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have around ‘why does X screen reader output content differently to Y screen reader’.

    I would personally love to see screen reader vendors do two things:

    provide better surfacing of settings dialogues and easier to read help documentation
    be more transparent about what code they do and don’t support for developers

    Having said that NVDA do a great job with engaging with the community and listening to feedback.

  15. Stuff From All Over | Kate Sullivan Blogs Says:

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  16. Robert Madge Says:

    I think that a survey of 10-15 year-olds might show different results – at least in the area of visual configuration.

    However, as someone well outside that age category but in the 5% who change their default settings, I have become less inclined to do so as time goes on. The reason – new versions of programs, and even automatic updates, often do not respect configuration changes and so I am fighting a losing battle. In particular, I have given up changing default directory settings, because doing so always gave me problems with updates, although I do give attention to functional settings whenever I get a new program or device.

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    […] Do users change their settings? » UIE Brain SparksWhat we found was really interesting. Less than 5% of the users we surveyed had changed any settings at all. More than 95% had kept the settings in the exact configuration that the program installed in. […]

  19. CMD Says:

    This is all a good argument for SANE DEFAULTS

  20. LPowell Says:

    Microsoft Word is without doubt the number one offender in the category of user abuse. One look at this behemoth’s massively bloated and haphazardly organized settings nightmare is enough to account for Microsoft’s findings that “Less than 5% of the users we surveyed had changed any settings at all”. The upredictible side-effects of altering MS Word’s settings are so hazardous that most people learn to avoid doing anything that might screw up the formatting of their documents.

    I’ve used every version of this product since Word 97 and each has been more unmanageable than the last. The user interface of the latest version is an atrocity of self-indulgent header-bar encroachment, burying virtually every essential function under a pack-rat nest of gratuitous marketing fluff. They even hid the most basic UI element of all – the File Menu itself!

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  22. EricW Says:

    I used to be a trainer for a company that made software for academic libraries. I told them the defaults were set so poorly so they would have to change the defaults.

  23. Did you change the settings? – Alfred's New Ramblings Says:

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  24. Alfred Says:

    Excellent article. Brings back memories. Way back in the days of Wordstar, I used to reconfigure nearly every option, colors, backspace buffer, highlights etc. It was really easy, all the settings is in just one file. The single program instance helps a lot. When I changed OS to Windows 3.1, the fun of the reconfiguration is taken out. you can change how a program looks with out changing the entire environment. At the same time I did not want to upset the spiffy new OS. Config file for Word? It was buried somewhere. Fast forward to Office 20xx, there are now multiple screens within screens (OL20xx) for configuration. Sometimes I got lost guiding users over phone and have to resort to stepping through my own config. Now on Windows 7, I might change the desktop picture and the hibernation. The rest I couldn’t be bothered.

    Background? I used to program dBase for fun, to a server guy to middle management.

  25. Peter K Says:

    I have my work Windows XP settings configured all sorts of different ways. I meticulously prune my Start menu to show only those programs I want in the Start menu. As soon as an update repopulates a shortcut back in the Start menu, I delete it immediately.

    I also downloaded TweakUI to remove some of the annoying things about XP so I don’t have to deal with them as a user.

    Invariably, my customizations confuse the IT department when they come to service my workstation. I once got lectured about my über-customization was a bad thing since I’m making it difficult for other people who might have to use my machine to work on how I have my system set up.

    Since others shouldn’t be on my workstation anyway, I promptly ignored such advice.

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  27. Sampada M Says:

    You mention that you have conducted the same experiment several times over the years. I’m interested in the details for the most recent one.

    There are many factors that could affect customization –

    1. Really good defaults
    2. We adapt to technologies (default settings) too well – we find workarounds
    3. Customization features are buried and/or difficult to use – bad UI design
    4. People vary on their need for control and need for uniqueness, which affects how much they customize
    5. Many customize only once – and then feel no need to keep customizing (point of customization might also affect this – someone might customize a wallpaper over and over again, but might customize Microsoft Word only once and be happy with that config for life)
    6. Some might prefer cosmetic (presentation-based) customization over functional (task-based customization
    7. There are power users (here, developers) who have been known to be very interested in customization (user-initiated, user-controlled), whereas non-power users prefer personalization (system-initiated, system-driven)
    8. People might slowly get used to the idea of customization as a culture

    So, yes, default settings should be really good, but research has proven time and again that customization helps users feel in control of the UI and their experience. It also helps them establish a psychological connnection with the UI – which affects patronage.

  28. David Newcomb Says:

    When it comes to computers, (generally speaking) the only people who know about them are programmers and designers. Most of the great unwashed are too scared to touch any of the options, don’t have the domain specific reasoning skills to take knowledge from a similar system (virtual or otherwise) and infer knowledge about this system and aren’t familiar enough with the help system to learn anything. They are fearful of breaking it and once it is broken they will have no idea how to fix it and no idea about how to go about fixing it.

    I support several companies and have 2 ageing parents and this is what they tell me.

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  30. Mike Homyack Says:

    Most users look at PCs the same way you look at that guy on the bus who’s maintaining a high energy debate with the imaginary person riding in the seat next to him. They’re barely stable, rarely do exactly what you ask them to, and are prone to violent outbursts if provoked.

    Changing settings is like intentionally sitting next to that guy on the bus and asking him if he’ll open the window to let in a little fresh air… sure, he might just open the window, but then again he might decide that you’re one of the gang of aliens who he’s sure are stalking him and, with defensible reasoning on his side, defenstrate you into oncoming traffic (thereby opening the window, which is what you asked for).

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  33. Rachel Ganz Says:

    There’s also a noticeable lack of respect for users – even among these comments: “apathetic”, “scared” “great unwashed”.

    I have long ago become bored by spending any of my time setting up computers. I spend a certain amount of energy on things that are within my control and reliably save more effort than it takes to set them up or workaround them (e.g., templates).

    As far as I know, that does not make me any more apathetic or unwashed than I was in my days of geekery tweakery; just with different priorities.

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  36. tunde Says:

    Great article, it seems to confirm the myth of personalisation. Designers and clients often propose designing web sites that allow users to personalize the experience and to configure the layout etc. I have always thought that most people can’t be bothered to change things, they just want it to work and to reduce the effort on their part. The work and cost of making a solution configurable is unlikely to be rewarded by users using or applauding such a feature.

    Great to have some evidence to support this belief.

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  41. Tronster Says:

    Great article! Coming from a UI game industry background I wonder:

    What if the end user is a game player? From what I have observed, most AAA game players (e.g., XBOX, PC, Playstation, etc…) do indeed tend to fall into the same bucket as programmers, in that they change settings from defaults (or at least look them over). I’d theorize casual game players (e.g., iOS, Facebook, etc…) would fall more into the non-programmer category.

    Have you done any testing with these demographics?

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  45. Rimantas Varanavicius Says:

    You know, I’d go even more radical and say that in many cases a setting is there because a team has not spend enough time understanding what exactly user needs. Not always, but in many cases.
    (I think there should be no setting to turn off the AutoSave for Word.)

    I remember from my own programming experience – there were cases when we were discussing how to implement specific thing and we were not sure or did not know what’s the best way to do it, quite often we used to say “OK, let’s make it configurable” = let’s add a setting.
    Now I think that was a big mistake. Not only we did not spend enough time to really understand what user needs/wants, but we also unnecessarily inflated the code, which then took more time to test, more time to maintain, more time to install and setup, more time to train the user, etc. And all that with no real additional value to a user.
    So the way I see it, when you’re thinking about a user setting, it is very important to think what the default setting value should be. But it’s even more important to be sure that this setting is absolutely needed. If you’re not sure – remove it, talk to users, learn more about the process/user needs and implement with no setting.
    Less code branches, less options to test, easier to maintain, setup, train. Bigger smile on your face at the end of the day when you’re going home:)


  46. feadog Says:

    Our users are expert programmers and even THEY don’t customize the interface. What they want is deep-level control of the application itself — through command lines and APIs.

    Putting the burden of customization on the user often seems like a cop-out to avoid doing the work of figuring out the most effective screen configuration for the task at hand.

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  53. wolfkin Says:

    If you’re a programmer or designer, then you’re not like most people. Just because you change your settings in apps you use doesn’t mean that your users will, unless they are also programmers and designers.

    This is old news to us. Or rather people who work with computers I should say since I’m not actually a programmer or designer by trade. We’ve all had to help out a family member or a friend with their computer and the first thing you’ll notice after you get past all the toolbars are things like the way files don’t have extensions, the start menu doesn’t have sub-menus, everything behaves as default. It generates insane amount of frustration for us the “local gurus”. It’s especially frustrating on institutional computers such as on a college campus where all the computers reset after logging off (which is cool) but those settings revert to first runs so not just no file names but “welcome to Firefox” screens.

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