Snippet: Design Is The Difference Between Choice and Decision

Yesterday, I reviewed some of Dieter Rams’ Design philosophies and tried to apply them to existing and potential wearable products. I decided to leave out the following section on the difference between Choice and Decision because it didn’t quite fit into the article’s theme. I share it with you now.

Choice vs. Decision

There’s a difference between choice and decision. Choice is an option. Decision is a burden.

Great design elegantly reduces cognitive load. ~ rands (@rands)

Not making one-time decisions at the design level forces the customer to make those decisions over and over again at the user level. This is a constant cognitive strain. Microsoft is infamous for this. When faced with a design decision, they abdicate their responsibility and throw the burden onto the end user. When faced with a design choice, they choose not to choose and do “both.” ((A desktop with a mouse AND a touchscreen. A touch tablet AND a keyboard. A touch tablet AND a pen. An touch input AND a mouse/pen input. A tablet operating system AND a desktop operating system. And, of course, every port known to man. Well…, almost (full-size USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, and microSD™ card reader on Surface 3).))

Good design is more decisions by the designer. Good decisions by the designer means less decisions by the user.

Design is making decisions, so users won’t have to.

which way to go

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

26 thoughts on “Snippet: Design Is The Difference Between Choice and Decision”

  1. Of course self image is everything. In a bygone world where Microsoft was the Amazon of computing, they might have seen themselves as a massively competitive computing store (not a boutique).

    Touch screens – sure.
    Digital pens – sure.
    Tabletop screens – got that too.
    Wii type gaming – We’ll throw in Kinnect; oh, and now we’ll offer it as an option

    Want fries with that?

    (Perhaps the new CEO will -design- for productivity.)

  2. The tricky part is knowing how to tell the differences between choices and decisions. It is good for legitimate choices to be made available in settings. It is bad for settings to become the place where you are forced to make decisions that the programmers failed to make.

    Even the best designers sometimes fail to figure out what counts as a choice and what as a decision. If you delve into the settings, Windows offers a choice of screen font sizes, allowing the UI to be scaled up to meet the needs of people with poor vision (or just aging eyes). as far as i know, OS X does not offer the ability to adjust the size of the UI font (unless you have a high dpi display).

    On rhe other hand, it is very easy to turn a real and usefu choice into an annoying decision. Windows has TWO completely different ways to scale the UI font. One is easily found under themes but only affects part of the UI, and is exposed as a long list of eye-searing colour themes and pre-canned size themes mixed together, with the semi-hidden option to roll your own size theme but only if you are willing to muck around with an extremely annoying interface that expects you to set every possible aspect of the UI’s size individually, one at a time. The other provides a single simple way to scale up every aspect of nearly every app, but hides it deep inside the “advanced” settings for your video card.

    1. Sure, that’s why we often appreciate having different companies making their own sets of choices. We can select the one that comes closest to our preferences. Don’t like Apple’s choices choose a Dell with their set (among their set of choices).

      Whoever makes the most preferred balance set among choices will do well commercially.

    2. UI of items on the desktop can be changed here:
      View / Show View Options
      You can scale icons from 16px to 128px, text size from 10-16, and the grid spacing.

      Then there is System Preferences / Accessibility / Zoom
      Which has some interesting options.

      1. “UI of items on the desktop can be changed here: View / Show View Options”
        Which only applies to Finder and the desktop, not all apps.

        “Then there is System Preferences / Accessibility / Zoom”

        Which basically makes the OS screen larger than your actual display, so you have to zoom in to see something clearly, then zoom out again so you can find the dock/app menu/next thing you need to look at.

        Both are much inferior to either of Windows’s options, which apply across all apps, and which make the UI (or part of the UI, depending on which method you use) of each and every app larger without having to mess around with zooming in then out again.

    3. “The tricky part is knowing how to tell the differences between choices and decisions” – Glaurung-Quena

      Yes, definitely an art form. Ironically, you know that a designer has gotten it right when you don’t know there is a design at all — if the choices are so well done that we can’t conceive of any other choice having been possible.

      1. “if the choices are so well done that we can’t conceive of any other choice having been possible”

        Um, no, unless you’ve gotten your terms mixed up. Choice is something that the designer *should* leave up to the user. Such as the scaling of UI elements — 20 year olds with rabbit eyes can choose to have lots of screen real estate and teeny tiny buttons, while 40+ year olds should be able to choose to have much easier to see UI elements at the expense of screen real estate. In this regard Apple did not do the right thing, because they mistook a choice for a decision.*

        On the other hand, Windows, having understood the importance of offering a choice of UI scales to accommodate differences in people’s vision, mistook a decision about what kind of UI scaling should be implemented for yet another choice, and so we ended up with both theme-based (partial) UI scaling and DPI-based (complete) UI scaling. In this way once again Windows snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

        * to be more precise, Apple decided that offering a choice for the near-blind (a built in screen magnifier/zooming app) was enough choice for *everyone*. I think this is similar in spirit with what’s talked about here: in terms of focusing on the most hapless users and forgetting about more experienced users.

        1. More directly, this is why I hate mobile apps and websites that don’t let me either pinch and zoom or turn to landscape mode to get larger text.


    4. On my Mavericks MB Air, System Preferences/Display allows me to choose between best for display and scaled, where scaled then offers 1440×900, 1280×800, and 1024×600. 1025×600 is quite big. I haven’t looked at this with an external monitor, although I know I’m offered options when using a projector.

      1. I thought that feature was only available on retina displays. Anyway, my point largely stands, since Windows has offered some kind of scaling for over 15 years, and Apple has only gotten around to doing it in the past few years.

        1. I don’t actually know if or when this function wasn’t available on a Mac, as I know I had it with my Mac IIcx in the late 1980s, PowerMac in the 1990s, and Powerbook in early 2000s.

          1. I was confused and thought you were talking about DPI scaling. Lowering the resolution is a seriously inferior way to make things bigger. Windows’s theme and DPI scaling gives you easier to read text and buttons while still enjoying the benefits the full screen resolution. As best I can tell, unless I pay for a 4k display or a retina laptop, I cannot have anything like it on a mac.

        2. You’ve always been able to set the display resolution, which then scales everything, apps, basically your entire screen. I can go all the way back to 640×480 on my 27 inch iMac. I can’t actually use the ‘normal’ resolution on my iMac, everything is too small for my eyes. I use one resolution less, which makes everything comfortable, and all apps automatically scale, all web pages, everything. It’s really simple and easy. I can’t remember when Macs couldn’t do this. I do remember Macs could change screen resolution without rebooting, while on Windows you had to reboot for the change to take effect.

        3. One thing that Apple has offered since 1984 that MS has never gotten around to doing is just decent font rendering. Whatever the resolution, I have always found Macs to be less tiring on the eyes.

      2. Something like 95 to 99% of people never ever open their system settings – ever. All these nuances that we go on endlessly about are for the 1%. But since that 1% is us — we think it must be important to all.

        I love choices but hate decisions. The designers Herculean task is to provide me with the former and remove the latter.

    5. I’ve dealt with the two different Windows 7 ways and they both suck for common Windows business apps such as Peachtree Accounting.

      In Windows, your more reliant on the developers upgrading, make their apps incompatible with WindowsXP.

      The way window does things has pros and cons, Anandtech still thinks the Windows way is behind OSX.

      To each their own

  3. “When faced with a design choice, they choose not to choose and do both. A desktop with a mouse AND a touchscreen. A touch tablet AND a keyboard.”

    But John, don’t you see? The market really wants a car with 3 steering wheels and 4 brake pedals.

  4. Every choice involves a decision!
    “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!” -Rush
    Default settings are chosen for you. Choice and decision involves the ability to modify defaults.

  5. So very true! Apple do their best to simplify the interface (and user experience) to remove complexity, and thus, cognitive load. Although some (power) users may justly argue, they sometimes over simplify, removing features.

    1. Power users will always complain because the complexity that normal abhor, they gladly accept as a minor price to pay in order to obtain the power they seek.

      That’s not to say that Apple hasn’t gone too far on many occasions. It’s an art form and while the vast majority of computer engineers lean on the side of saying “yes” too often to complexity, sometimes they will make the opposite mistake and sacrifice flexibility on the alter of simplicity.

      1. The simple answer and generally what Apple do, is absorb the complexity away from the user with a simplified interface, but make available powerful tools & plug-ins (Applescript, Automator etc) for advanced users.
        Microsoft on the other hand often leave in too many features that add complexity in their user interface, degrading the user experience.

  6. As Steve Jobs said “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste.”
    A wine-seller with no taste stocks 1000 labels. One with taste stocks a handful of each variety, all good (at least to someone’s taste).
    If I’m feeling charitable, I could say that Microsoft avoids the risk of offending anybody (though I’m not often that charitable). But that approach always ends up delighting nobody. Apple, meanwhile, has delighted (at least) me since Apple ][.

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