The pros and cons of “defaults”


I first came across the concept of a default in a computer program when product manager for VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. The idea that a programmer could pre-select a setting or option for the user seemed very powerful to me. Having options is always good, except when too many options can either become annoying or result in “paralysis by analysis” or cognitive overload.

The art of choosing defaults or what are now commonly called “preferences” is a balancing act between annoying or confusing the user and providing them with the ability to personalize the app to meet their needs.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been involved in designing software, so I hadn’t given the concept of defaults much thought, if any, until recently. Like a good Apple user I dutifully downloaded and installed the latest version of iOS for my iPhone. All seemed fine until I noticed that the icon badges for email and messages had disappeared from my iPhone! Icon badges are very useful, as they inform me not only if I have new mail, but how many unread messages I have. This is the first thing I check on my phone after coming out of a meeting.

I turned to my universal tech support provider, Google, to find that iOS has a preference to turn off badges, not only for email but for text messages as well.  Somehow the new version had reversed the icon badge setting. I had to dig into my iPhone’s preferences to change the badge icons from “Off” to “On” for mail and messages. Not that difficult, but annoying, and I found that a change that had been made for me without notification a bit disturbing. What other defaults might be reset by new versions of iOS, with no notice, choice, or notification?

Those of you designing software for smartphone apps, give careful thought to what features have default options and how you set defaults. Those choices can result in either a smooth, streamlined user experience or one marred by an annoyance. And changing defaults without notice to the user can tend to erode trust in your app or operating system.

The concept of defaults can also be used in other contexts than computer user interfaces. For example, in my first startup we decided that everyone should get stock options, depending on two parameters: when they started with the company and what level of position they held – VPs got more than directors who got more than managers, who go more than staff (though star individual contributors could demand and merited more stock options). But we soon learned that the default of granting everyone options was not a wise move. It turned out that a significant minority of our hires would have preferred a higher salary in lieu of stock options. This group tended to be the family breadwinners (what a strange archaic phrase that is!) who needed more cash to pay their bills. Young, single people with no family to support and no mortgages preferred stock options. So we redesigned our compensation plan to give new hires an option: take a higher salary with no stock options or opt for a lower salary with stock options. Our CFO calculated the trade-off numbers for new hires and we found that new hires were now more satisfied with their compensation plans.

Note we only offered two choices, for simplicity’s sake. While some people might have wanted a slight salary decrease in exchange for some stock options, it is hard enough managing your employee compensation plan and cap table without having an infinite number of combinations of salary and stock options.

Going beyond a simple “on”or “off” or “opt in” or “opt out” risks generating needless complexity. Thus the brilliance of Facebook’s Like button vs the typical five stars used for ratings on other platforms, such as Amazon. Facebook makes the decision very easy, “Like” or don’t. And for the generator of the content they can simply measure the number of Likes, rather than attempting to compute their average star rating. Or should that be the median number of stars? Or maybe the mode?

There’s another term I like to borrow from software engineering: combinatorial explosion. A combinatorial explosion results from the multiplier effect of having choices or options on top of options such that the number of options the user had grows exponentially. That’s what our CFO would have faced had we offered new hires any combination of salary and stock options that struck their fancy.

As Einstein is reputed to have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I’d say that applies well to options or preferences, whether in technology or business.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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