This might be purely anecdotal, but it feels to me that desingers and developers are increasinly resorting to customizable interfaces as a panacea for all interface ills. Arguably, the heterogeneity of user expectations takes the challenge of designing universal interfaces to a whole other level. Or does it?

A customizable interface is one that gives the user partial or total control over one or several of its properties. For years, Microsoft Word has allowed users to customize the default toolbar under the assumption that this would help them tailor the interface to fit their workflows. Users can literally spend hours exploring hundreds of buttons and thousands of combination to choose from.

Word customization panel
Word 2011 customization panel.

Similarly, Mac OS 10.0 has introduced customizable toolbars in some of its flagship applications. Icons can be selectively displayed, rearranged, or completely discarded in favor of text-only labels.

Finder customizable toolbar
Finder customizable toolbar

Other notable software vendors such as Macromedia and Adobe have pushed for customization in their interfaces, propelling it to a de facto standard in modern application design over the years.

The Pitfall

Since the dawn of graphical user interfaces, academics have thoroughly studied subjectivity and efficiency in interface design (Tullis, 1984). Most findings boil down to the following conclusion: interfaces that accommodate subjectivity do not maximize efficiency.

This may sound incompatible with the mantra that customization leads to more productivity, but not if you consider these points:

  • Most users are not aware of what works best for them. Their personalization choices are more often than not based on tastes and vague assumptions.

  • Learning the customization features and exploring all the possibilities before making a choice will most likely distract users from the task at hand.

  • Customizable interfaces add an extra layer of complexity that may turn off less experienced users. For instance, complaints of “disappearing” toolbar buttons are not hard to come by in less computer-savvy circles.

  • The efficiency of customizable interfaces may be difficult to assess using quantitative methods.

In some particular circumstances, giving users control over some elements of the interface is inevitable. But in the majority of cases, customization should be kept at its bare minimum; it’s the role of product designers to figure out what works best for 80% of their users. A highly customizable interface is a clear symptom of indecisiveness and lack of understanding.

A relevant and timely example would be distraction-free writing environments on Mac OS X. Using minimalistic, barely customizable interfaces, this niche category of applications tries to address the problem of feature creep that most modern word processing solutions suffer from. Ironically, most of these applications downplay the fact that even the slightest level of customization can undermine their selling point. Distraction slowly creeps in when users are given the ability to customize fonts, colors and backgrounds.

The recently released iA Writer for Mac trod the path of zero customizability in a move that would seem bold to developers and users alike. Unsurprisingly, it takes only a couple of minutes on iA Writer to realize that the lack of customization is nowhere near detrimental to efficiency. From typography to colors, everything has been taken care of for users, allowing them to fully concentrate on the task at hand: writing.

Closing Thoughts

The one-size-fits-all approach could be easily dismissed as limiting for more complex software products such as graphic editors and word processors. Their highly customizable interfaces are built on the premise that users have esoteric expectations and disparate workflows. Then again, shouldn’t we be striving to make more focused apps to begin with?