Given the fact that I’m an American, it might sound crazy that I’m willing to give up a seemingly all-important American value: freedom of choice. But I believe it is possible for choices to become too much to manage. More than that, I believe that this happens with great regularity in the field of software.
I have a long history with various software and hardware systems. I’ve used DOS (though I was so young I barely remember it), Windows 3.1, 95, 98, 98SE, ME, XP, Vista, 7, and even 8/8.1. I also used Linux distributions of almost every flavor (Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Fedora, Gentoo, and Arch to name a few). Actually, I used Linux almost exclusively for a period of about two years. I now find myself quite happily camped out on Mac OS X, and I’ve used every version since Snow Leopard. I’ve also used several versions of Android, Windows Mobile 2003 through 6.1, and my current favorite iOS. As someone once said, “I’ve been everywhere.”
There was a time, especially during my Linux and Android days, when I wanted to be able to customize literally everything about my computer experience. I don’t just mean choosing my browser. I got down into the nitty gritty of choosing what desktop environment I used and even into compiling my own Linux kernel (which was a fantastic waste of time, mind you). I remember setting up hand-made Rainmeter and Conky scripts and even writing my own GTK themes. I’d theme my Android OS and set up loads of widgets across many screens. I shudder to think about the amount of time I’ve spent customizing.
Then I started getting contracts doing graphic and web design. I discovered a rather urgent need to do things on my computer other than customize it. I needed access to tools like Photoshop and a reliable text editor. I had to uninstall the fancy Windows themes I had downloaded because they made some of my programs work kind of funny. Besides that, I just didn’t have time to customize how the checkboxes and icons looked on my computer.
Really, There were two reasons I decided to stop customizing. First, I found that the more I customized things, the more likely they were to break (complexity introduces possible points of failure). And second, I found that designing my interface wasn’t something I practically had time to do while also using my computer to do other things.
Sometimes, the options become too much. This is my chief reason for using iOS over Android and it’s at least part of my reason for using Mac over Windows. With the iPhone and iPad, Apple decides what’s best for their users and they only allow the user to do things a certain way. Some people rebel at that thought, and perhaps for good reason. Personally though, I much prefer it.
It’s entirely possible that if I bought an Android phone, I might be able to customize it so that it was more efficient than my iPhone. I know better how I personally use my phone (since I’m me), and besides that I call myself a User Experience Designer. But I’m not entirely confident that the time I would spend customizing would ultimately be worth it. In the end, I’d rather have a professional choose my options for me.
Sometimes people who use Apple products are accused of being simple because they can’t figure out Android or Windows—they need something with fewer options. And that may be the case for many users. But for some of us, we know how to customize, we just don’t want to anymore. Just because I know how to compile my Linux kernel and build a distribution from the ground up doesn’t mean I want to do that. Actually, I find that the professionals are better at it than I am anyway.
This gets at what the heart of design is (which warrants another post in itself). A well designed device or system should give me very few options to worry about because the designers know that what they’ve chosen is actually going to be the best for their users. Ultimately, I don’t want customization; I want good design.