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".
You know the drill: You download or install a new piece of software or open a new piece of technology (e.g. mobile phone, laptop, VR system) and you have to "configure it" to get something to work or work the way you want it to...
I refer to configuration in its broadest sense: A user must perform some advanced action in order to get some desired result from software, a website or a product experience. Typically the term configuration means to adjust or change settings- hiding, activating or altering useful features and system behaviors.
Being forced to change an interface from the current state to the desired state is the basic unit of the task of configuration.
Basic Examples: You need to assign a microphone on a Microsoft Teams or Google Meet/ Zoom call. Want to change your desktop picture? You need to find that right click menu and select your new choice. 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 network or a secure network, you need to view available networks, choose one and add a password.
Note: If these examples are everyday tasks for you, then you are probably deep in the forest of configuration and configuration is second nature to you.
1. Ecommerce. 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.
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 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 lately? It can be a nightmare depending on your phone brand/model.
4. Operating Systems. No finer example. The entire Operating System user experience (Windows, Mac, and Linux) used to be a big configuration love fest and only got better in recent years. 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.
5. 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). The simplicity of the search interface was a raging battle at search engine companies for years until Google cleared the noise. There was even a browser called Raging, the naming owing to the fights over minimalism versus configuration.
The List is Endless-- Home Theater Systems, Smart Speakers, Web Analytics software, Content Management Systems, Email Marketing Software, Document Management Systems, Spyware Remover software, Anti-Virus software, and more...
Why won't configuration go away?
The reason we see configuration everywhere is it is a logical Engineering approach to design. The configuration mentality comes to us by way of legacy computer systems and legacy engineering-centered designs. The idea of "let users decide their settings and defaults" is pervasive. It's also wrong. Instead, let users discover the defaults naturally or enjoy them as they find them based on how well you understand their needs and tasks. Allow for configuration to be playful, enjoyable and slick like a good onboarding experience.
Avoiding "Configuration Hell"
- "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. Or you will see them subject to Technology Adoption Evolution- the idea that if it's difficult and not easily adoptable, it dies out and is replaced years later by other approaches. This has certainly been the case over my 25 years in the field-- when I started with VR. VR onboarding (hardware) today has gotten better. VR 5 years ago was a sad and cruel configuration hell of its own. VR-ready PC's (costing $1500) came with audio disabled. It took us many hours to turn audio on, and this included asking a sound engineer, a CEO, CPO, high school student and UX designer. Configuration hell on something that should be core-- VR is audio + visual experience-- there is no "audio off" in VR.
Microsoft seems to have a fetish for disabling audio and forcing configuration, as Teams users know too well. Even today, many VR systems require configuration of audio, as well as configuration of various settings and defaults. Audio is a critical part of VR, why would it not be a super easy and simple onboarding task? Next, VR software is plagued with configuration hell in the form of onboarding. In particular, social VR has a long way to go. New experiences with lots of promise, miss the plot. Spatial.io offers a revolutionary avatar from your smartphone building experience: it's fast and simple. Once you arrive into the virtual space, it's empty. A social collaborative experience, with other avatars (social cues) missing. They missed the plot. Why? Because they are in that same tiny room in their heads called "users will configure their way to the value proposition we are offering". I don't think they will.
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?
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?"
Seamless Configuration is the only way!
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 opting to give users a plug-and-play user experience.
In 2005 (when this article was originally penned), I purchased a Toshiba notebook that boasted hassle-Free "Config-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 or Zero 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. Its 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, I had to involve technical support and it took several hours of trouble-shooting!
In conclusion, we need the mentality of Universal Plug and Play and Zero Configuration in design and development, period. You should open a new device or digital product in the future and have simultaneous config-free access to eg wireless, audio for online meetings, writing (ink) enabled when pen meets tablet/ iPads etc. The trend toward auto-detection and just-in-time configuration is a great leap forward. To fit the technological experience into our lives (think Internet of Things and AI), we will need context-sensing. Not only at a task level but at a social and emotional level. Where is the user? What are they doing? What do they need? What is reasonable? What is ethical? What is the important enabling element to deliver the core experience?
Frank Spillers, MS
Postscript: This is an updated version of this post that originally appeared in 9/25/2005.