You know the drill: You download or install a new piece of software or open a new piece of technology (e.g. PDA, mobile phone, laptop) and you have to "configure it" to get something to work or work the way you want it to...
Summary: Users are not usually successful at configuring software, websites or devices and the configuration experience can be a major source of frustration. Instead we need to move toward a world where everything is auto-configured and user experiences are "plug and play".
Defining Configuration: I refer to configuration in it's broadest sense: A user must perform some advanced action in order to get some desired result from software, a web site or a product experience. Typically the term configuration means to adjust or change settings- hiding, activating or altering useful features and system behaviors.
Basic Examples: You want to change your desktop picture?- You need to find that right click menu and select your new choice. You want to use flash on your digital camera at night?- You have to scroll through the menus and select that option- (don't forget to turn it off!) You want to re-connect to a new wi-fi (wireless) network or a secure network, you need to view available networks, choose one or add an encrypted key. Need to watch a video online?- You need to know your connection speed and choose your player.
Note: If these examples are no-brainer tasks for you, then you are probably deep in the forest of configuration and configuration is second nature to you. This article explains why you might not be able to relate to why configuration is such a major usability issue for average users (Average users = people who don't work with computers for a living).
Symptoms of "Configuration Hell"
1. On the web. A shopping cart is a type of configuration experience. When you remove an item and forget to update the cart, your cart will be inaccurate. Playing with a poor shopping cart is a symptom of configuration hell. Navigation usability issues can be seen as a type of configuration SNAFU in the sense that users are trying to steer a website in a particular direction to serve up the desired pages or functionality.
Changing an interface from current state to desired state is the basic unit of the task of configuration.
2. Updating Your Account. Amazon's lousy Account Management user experience (which never seems to get any better) is another example. Ever notice how hard it has been over the years to get information on an order at Amazon? So difficult, they put an "animated demo" of the Account section in there to "help" (see this article about how Help, Never Does).
3. Mobile Devices. Tried setting up email on your mobile phone (smartphone or PDA) lately? It can be a total nightmare depending on your phone brand/model.
4. Operating Systems. No finer example. The entire Operating System user experience (Windows, Mac and Linux) is a big configuration love fest. Installation and in particular driver installation are artifacts of the legacy of software configuration (Yes, configuration for end-users is part of the past, and not part of the future, I believe. The big shift in Windows came with auto-detection of Media devices and Wireless networks in Windows XP in 2001). Ever tried going online with a Windows 2000 laptop and your wireless card? It will boil your blood.
Lindows has tried to address the OS software installation experience (an aspect of configuration) with near instant installation of the entire Operating System ("seven minutes" in a recent Extreme Tech review). Another innovation is the streamlining of software installation for the OS with the Click-N-Run functionality (same review next page):
"Click-N-Run - slick, slick, slick!
One of the most annoying things for newbies about installing software in Linux is that most apps don't even give you an icon to click to start them after installation - and it's hard to find those applications in the first place. Experienced Linux users know where to go, and can easily create their own icons, or use the command prompt to start new applications. But Linux newbies aren't used to that and sometimes can't figure out how to find or easily start the application they just installed.
[FS: It's not just a Linux phenomenon! If you need evidence of this, visit a relative and ask them if they are using their printers/scanners/digital cameras etc. You're sure to find issues with driver installation or configuration literacy.]
Thus Lindows has a Click-N-Run feature that makes it simple to find a new application, then download, install and run that application. It all happens with a simple click of the mouse. We've got to give the Lindows people credit; Click-N-Run is well designed and easy to use. It's pretty much a no-brainer to navigate the Click-N-Run store to choose software. And after installation Click-N-Run gives you the option of starting the software, adding a link to it on your desktop or adding it to Auto-start. While this might seem like an unimportant detail - it's not. In fact it's very important".
The Mac has a similar function with regard to installation where .exe files (or .dmg files as they are called) are sometimes drag-able to the Applications folder causing them to be instantly "installed".
5. Browsers. Managed your cookies or Java settings lately? Okay, how about 5 years ago? Spyware these days has more people clearing cookies and cache files- but remember how your co-workers didn't even know how to do that a few years back?
Configuration usability issues leave a trail behind: see this user's helpful tips. The Firefox browser made some leaps and bounds with "browser switching", a technique borrowed from a new trend in banking- the "we'll help you defect" switch kit...
When installing Firefox, it pulls all your Internet Explorer settings over, including bookmarks and cookies to the browser. It's fairly slick and worth noting. The Firefox folks at Mozilla also seem to be aware (article: Realities of Users) of the truths inherent in this posting you are reading now ;-)
6. Blogging software. (Typepad, Moveable Type). Need to show your bio? Add an XML feed? Change your design template? All configuration tasks. Typepad has won an award for making it easier, but still managing these important configuration settings can be a little confusing.
7. Search Engines. Google eliminated the search configuration paradigm, removing the need for users to pre-select the Boolean filters AND/OR/NOT (drop-down menus and radio buttons). Simplicity of search interface was a raging battle at search engine companies for years until Google cleared the noise. However, many website search interfaces are obssesed with letting user's fail with Boolean filtering. (See this related post on Site Search usability for more detail).
8. The List is Endless: Home Theater Systems, Camcorders, Cameras, Web Analytics software, Content Management Systems, Email Marketing Software, Document Management Systems, Spyware Remover software, Firewall software, Anti-Virus software, Instant Messaging Clients, Telematics (Automotive) systems...the list goes on...
Towards Universal Configuration in Design
Why do we have configuration in the first place? The configuration mentality comes to us by way of legacy computer systems and legacy engineering-centered designs.
Configuration is the design decision that says:
- "We don't know what the perfect default should really be".
- "We want to let our users be the final judge".
- "Users can go into these advanced settings to change things".
- "To begin with or to add additional power to the functionality- configuration must occur".
I believe that user experiences that force configuration will become unpopular over time. Rather than exposing users to DIY interface engineering, we need to give them transparency, seamlessness, elegance. Your users should walk up to it and synch! Your users should open it up and be greeted warmly before being transported to their destination. Your system should auto-detect, auto-configure, auto-respond, auto-heal.
Don't let your users play with your brilliance, just let them experience the value they seek.
Why is universal configuration imperative? It relates to appropriately using the interaction design technique of progressive disclosure and also the importance of selecting defaults carefully (the topic of a future post).
Also there is the reality of user behavior. Here's how non-technical users relate to configuration:
1. "Stop it, I don't want to Configure Anything!"
2. "What is configuration?"
3. "Why do I have to configure it?"
4. "What is the best way to configure it?"
5. "What is the fastest way to configure it?"
6. "I didn't know I had to do that".
7. "Why isn't it already set up for me?"
Rather than giving users the bitter taste of choosing options and making
choices about display views, system settings and feature access-- many
manufacturers and application developers are giving users a plug and play user
experience. I recently purchased a Toshiba notebook that boasted hasstle-Free
Connectivity on the outside box.
I need to tell you, my expectations were racing- was I about to be embraced by a flesh and blood example of what I call Universal Configuration (auto-configuration everywhere on every thing)? No! The Toshiba laptop was not config-free. It had more configuration gymnastics associated with it than any other laptop I have set up in the last five years. It's problems started with the never mentioned and unique hard key wireless lock switch (defaulted to "lock" or wireless "off" mode). To simply go online with Windows XP, I had to involve technical support and it took several hours of trouble-shooting!
Bottom line: We need the mentality of Universal Plug and Play and Universal Configuration in design and development, period. You should open a new laptop in the future and have simultaneous config-free access to wireless, ethernet LAN and dial-up connectivity without any need to manually configure. Windows XP wireless network auto-detection and configuration is a great leap forward. However, have you ever tried configuring a dial-up connection from a hotel lately? If you haven't done it in a while, be prepared for a "configuration hell" experience.
Frank Spillers, MS