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How much control should our users have?


We all know Featuritis is bad, but what about User Control? Is more always better? The notion that a user-centric focus means putting users in control of everything--their software (and other tools), their learning, their conferences, the companies they support (the now-over-used "community")--is pervasive. But even when users do have the expertise to make good decisions, do they want to?

In some scenarios, of course. But when applied with abandon, user control can mean user suffering. In the 80's, the big thing in education was Learner Control. With hypertext tools came CBT programs and learners were finally put in charge of their own paths through material. The learner was empowered! Just one problem: most people pretty much suck at making sound learning decisions, especially when they don't already know the material. So, the era of more-is-better-for-learner-control was over.

Then in the 90's -- Whoo-Hoo! Interactive Movies! Interactive Television shows! Interactive Fiction! Outside of rare novelties and a few good story-driven games, most of us would rather leave our storytelling to Steven King or Steven Spielberg, thank-you. A huge part of the point of movies and novels is to be swept into another world--a world we do not have any responsibility for.

Worst of all, though, is the ongoing trend toward more-is-better for the products we purchase. More choices, more options, more control. In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz looks at how the overabundance of products today makes buying even toilet paper stressful. We shut down when we're faced with too many choices, even when those choices are about relatively simple things.

Yet we expect people to make decisions over some of the most complex things, regardless of whether they have any knowledge or training in those areas. I look at product checklists and comparisons for electronic devices and think, "WTF are they talking about?" I have no idea what this thing-with-the-check-mark-next-to-it is or why I'd want it. And we don't just agonize before we choose, the vast array of possibilities has us agonizing afterwards as well. Second-guessing ourselves, continuing to check reviews, etc. Like we don't have enough stress.

And in software programs, especially, we expect users to choose their workflow configurations way before they have the slightest idea why they'd care. Or we give them ten different ways to do the same thing--so each person can do it in the way that best suits them--when the new user just wants to do the thing -- not grapple with the cognitive overload of ten ways to do the thing they still can't do.

How much control should users have?

Obviously this is a big "it depends", but the main point is to focus on the relationship between user control and user capability. As user capability (knowledge, skill, expertise) increases, so should control -- at least for a lot of things we make, especially software, and especially when we're aiming not just for satisfied users but potentially passionate users. The big problem is that we make our beginning users suffer just so our advanced users can tweak and tune their configurations, workflow, and output. [For the record, I'm a big fan of splitting capabilities into different products, or having a really good user-level modes--where you use wizards or simpler interfaces for new users, etc. Yes, they're often done badly, but they don't have to be.]

The simple rule we so often forget is:

The amount of pain and effort should match the user's perceived payoff.

In other words, the user has to think it's worth it. Yes, another "duh" thing... but if it is that "duh", then why oh why haven't some of the biggest producers on the planet taken it to heart? How come I still can't tune my Denon receiver? Or adjust my home thermostat properly? How come I find myself in hotel bathrooms staring at the shower faucet, wondering how annoyed the front desk will be when I ask them to help me take a bath. How come I can't turn off automatic Capitalization in Word? (trust me, it's not as simple as it seems...)


But we'll accept (and sometimes even value) pain and effort when it's worth it. Apple's Final Cut, for example is much more difficult than TextEdit. But I expect Final Cut to be hard... and it's worth it. The pain-to-perceived-payoff ratio works. My stereo receiver, on the other hand, just pisses me off. The sad thing is, I'm probably just two button-presses away from success, but I swear the possible combinations of button-presses on my remote exceeds the number of particles in the known universe.


On the other extreme is Apple's iMovie. It gives you almost no control, but the payoff is high right out of the shrinkwrap. It exceeds my expectations of pain-to-payoff. But pretty quickly, anyone who gets into iMovie--and is bitten by the movie-making bug--starts wanting things that iMovie doesn't let you control. So... Apple says, "not to worry -- we have Final Cut Express HD for just $299". The problem is, the learning curve jump from iMovie to Final Cut Express is DRASTIC. There needs to be something in the middle, to smooth that transition.

User Control in Web 2.0
I realize that part of the Web 2.0 "sensibility" is that users are in charge, but I'm pretty sure even Tim O'Reilly doesn't mean that Web 2.0 means the inmates should be running the asylum. There's an ocean of difference between user contribution and user control. I'm sometimes afraid that the Age of User Participation will lead to the Age of Too Many People Doing Things They Are Not Qualified To Do But That Everyone Is OK With. Amateur Mash-up videos on YouTube? Hell yes. But what's next... amateur minor-surgery mash-ups? (that is actually, scarily, already happening, and I won't even link to it).

Putting users first does not necessarily mean putting users in charge.

I believe with all my heart in working with the user's happiness in mind (i.e. helping the user kick-ass), but part of my role is to use my specialized skills and knowledge to make that happen.

Even the poster kid of community-based business, Threadless, does not really put its community in control. In charge of voting on t-shirts, yes. In charge of whether Threadless is successful, yes -- but no more so than most businesses--they all live or die on whether customers want their product, experience, or both. But the Threadless community does not do the company's books, decide who to hire, choose their factory location, etc. The community has a very strong voice, and the Threadless guys listen--and respond--much better than most, but the company still controls the company. User contribution, not user control.

User Control and Capability enables Passion

In the end, though, having more control and capability represents a higher-resolution experience. It's part of what makes being GOOD at something so much better than being bad or even average. And it's that high-resolution experience that inspires people to passion. (A passionate snowboarder is usually on black-diamonds, not the bunny slope) So we should be trying to give users more capability and control...and encouraging them to take it. But we must balance that with the learning they need to take that responsibility without being overwhelmed.

Like everything else, it all comes back to user education. The more we help them learn and improve, the more control they can handle... and appreciate. By putting the user first, it's our job to give them the responsibility they want, but only when we know they're ready to handle it.

Posted by Kathy on February 13, 2007 | Permalink


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» User Control and the Payoff from UFies.org
Cool article on How much control should our users have? Hehee.... "canyon of pain". A nice relation (with pretty graphs)... [Read More]

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There is a limit beyond which freedom of choice generates shutdown. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice explores it well. After a while, complexity overwhelms the desirability of choice. [Read More]

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» User Centered Design and Bridging The Canyon of Pain from Tyner Blain
There is such a thing as too much choice. For new users, too much choice (or control) is too much. For experienced users, too little choice is a problem. Ease of use usually comes from reduced control - but users dont stay new for ... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 22, 2007 12:55:21 PM

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» Kathy Sierra at SXSW from Marketing & Strategy Innovation Blog
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Tracked on Mar 17, 2007 5:11:51 AM


Lovely piece, as always. Now what's the matter with Orbitz?

Posted by: Diana | Feb 13, 2007 7:08:41 PM

I really like this topic. I recently wrote an post about it. People seem to get really argumentative when you try to take things away. Yet it works so well for the companies you describe - 37Signals, Apple, etc. Sometimes I read the Basecamp customer forum, where people clamor for new features, just to watch Jason Fried and the 37s team shoot them down.

Posted by: Chas Grundy | Feb 13, 2007 7:16:50 PM

Great post as usual, Kathy.

Fairly recently I saw a talk about "User Centered Design in a Changing World" and one of the key points was that it's good -- and sometimes necessary -- to give users much more control than they have now. In fact, the speaker promoted the idea that users should actually be designing the software they use. [but it depends...and the usual disclaimers]

It's interesting to see you present the opposite perspective and I tend to agree with you. Giving users more options than they know what to do with is a good way of ensuring they stay away from your product as much as possible.

Posted by: Natasha | Feb 13, 2007 7:18:37 PM

I love the "Canyon of Pain" graphic

Posted by: jszilla | Feb 13, 2007 7:28:27 PM

Diana: I can't tell if you're kidding or not... ; ) The problem with Orbitz (and Travelocity, etc.) is that -- bless their little flight-booking-hearts -- they leave you feeling that it shouldn't be THIS frustrating or confusing. There are so many places where the pain doesn't seem worth the payoff, but then you don't really have an option ("I HAVE to book this flight"), which is more frustrating. I just keep running into problems like booking a multi-leg trip and not always being clear about which leg you're picking seats for, etc. -- (something that really matters when one leg is 11 hours long and the other one hour... I care a lot more about the 11 hour...) So, it's not that they're doing a trivial thing, it's just that my perception is that it shouldn't be this frustrating -- it should be pretty brainless.

Chas: Agreed, although in some cases I'd rather see things *hidden* as opposed to taken away. I'm definitely FOR advanced things, but not before the user is ready. Featuritis is interesting... I think of featuritis as *quantity* of features -- too much breadth, but sometimes you do need more *depth* on the features you have, so that users can continue to do more advanced things. So, sometimes it might be better to either hide things -- or bump them into a more advanced edition -- rather than completely take them away.

Natasha: I do think it IS good to give users a great deal of control--especially in an advanced edition of a product--but again, only when they're ready and know what to do with it (and aren't overwhelmed). As for letting them design the thing, whoa. There are exceptions, of course, but I still think this is most likely to lead to Frankenproducts.

It's tricky -- but to me, the most user-centric view is the one that does the best WE know how to do on behalf of our users, whether it's what they'd choose or come up with or not. That sounds a bit like "producer knows best", but in many cases, that's exactly right. The problem is, this is a two-way relationship... if we're not listening to our users, we can't possibly know how to apply our specialized knowledge to help them solve a problem or do something amazing. So, we have to pay very close attention to what they want and need, but innovation and implementation is usually best left to *us*. (And there are plenty of studies that show that what users *say* (and potentially believe) they want and what they REALLY want are more often than not *different* and potentially in conflict!

We have to listen to our users, but trust in ourselves and other professionals and research in our field.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 13, 2007 7:36:27 PM

"It turns out that freedom - the ability to make up your mind and change your mind - is the friend to natural happiness, cuz it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures, and find the one that you would most enjoy. But freedom to choose - to change and make up your mind - is the enemy of synthetic happiness." -Dan Gilbert in his hilarious TED talk (Google Video).

He stands up for synthetic happiness: "Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for." And he discusses different ways of generating synthetic happiness. One of which is 'being stuck'. Apparently, whatever you are 'stuck' with, you seem to be happier with (I wonder how this relates to windows advocates, cough cough). He gives this example, "This is the difference between dating and marriage right? I mean, you go out on a date with a guy and he picks his nose - you don't go out on another date. You're married to a guy and he picks his nose - uh yeah, he has a heart of gold, don't touch the fruitcake.... You find a way to be happy with what's happened."

Do you think that using synthetic happiness principles can be used to help users without betraying trust?

Posted by: Matt Jaynes | Feb 13, 2007 8:57:27 PM

LOVED your graphics, though you'll need to move the DirecTV version of TiVo more to the right. Just got an upgrade on my receiver, and both the remote and the "online" experience have gone from simple to COMPLEX. Lots more capabilities, but also very challenging for those who formerly could run the thing blindfolded.

Meanwhile, Sony has an "Easy" button on its new Handycams, so if you don't want to mess with all the controls, you don't have to. THAT was a smart upgrade.

Posted by: John Windsor | Feb 13, 2007 10:14:32 PM

Another way to help users through the Canyon of Pain (I chuckled when I saw it, as I've been through it with a number of tech items over the years) is to hold the users hands better, explain what options mean and what the consequences of the options are. I've seen too many check-box panels on things like my graphics cards with options like "Turn off Z-buffer" and no explanation of whether I'd want to do this or not. I'm not stupid, it's just in the last 5 years, technology has accelerated beyond my ability to keep up while still maintaining a job, relationship and life all at the same time. And now I've let it get past me, there's no way to catch up, as every explanation I find online relies on terms rooted in last year tech, which I also don't understand.

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Feb 13, 2007 11:35:23 PM

Pastrami sandwiches are my example of the paradox of choice

I learned to eat pastrami sandwiches when I was in college. I would go and stand in line a Koch's Deli to order a pastrami sandwich. The line was long, because so many other people wanted sandwiches, and Koch's knew how to make sandwiches. While we were waiting the butchers would trim off a half pound of cheese or cold cuts and pass them around for the customers to sample. When you finally got to the front of the line (it would take up to an hour, maybe you would need to order something extra to go), you would say, "Pastrami sandwich," and a few minutes later you would presented with an excellent pastrami sandwich. You could say, "Pastrami sandwich with Russian dressing," or some such, but if you didn't you got a great sandwich. And a pickle!

Sadly, no one knows how to make pastrami sandwiches anymore. If you go into a deli and order a pastrami sandwich, you basically have to make the sandwich yourself. "What kind of bread do you want that on?" "Do you want it toasted?" "Tomatoes? Onions? Mustard or mayonnaise?" "We have Swiss, Provolone and Jack cheese." "Chips, slaw or potato salad?" "Do you want a pickle?"

I would pay extra to be served a good sandwich without the interrogation. Don't the people in the deli know their product better than I do?

Posted by: Ray Baxter | Feb 14, 2007 2:56:11 AM

Great post Kathy,

In the British NHS there's some thinking going on about how value can be co-produced by clinicians and patients. In a small way I talk about at this at the linked url. Love the pain x effort = payoff for user rule. This will be helpful in exploring options with clinicians etc

Posted by: Steve Pashley | Feb 14, 2007 3:54:09 AM

One minor point here - Final Cut appeals to two very different markets. One is the "used iMovie, want more" market, and you're dead right about them.

The other one, and I suspect the larger one, is the pro filmmaker market (of which I'm one). For them, there's very, very little pain associated with the transition to Final Cut Pro. The day we bought a Mac and moved to FCP from Premiere 6 was one of the happiest days I've seen in the office - just me and our editor with a laptop and a pile of FCP manuals, going "ooh! Ohh, look, the "Ripple Delete" function works properly! Ooh, let's play with colour balancing!"

Which, of course, explains why FCP (and FCE) is so complex. Both of those programs are also aimed (primarily aimed, maybe) at experienced editors from other packages, and for them the feature increase *needs* to be that steep.

Posted by: Hugh "Nomad" Hancock | Feb 14, 2007 4:32:59 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. Next time when I will be asking "does user really want that level of control?" I link to this article :)

Posted by: Rimantas | Feb 14, 2007 4:44:39 AM

I bought a condo in the canyon of pain.

Posted by: Steven H. | Feb 14, 2007 9:44:22 AM

Robert Hoekman gives some great insight into this and practical ways to do it in his great book on web app design, Designing the obvious

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 14, 2007 12:34:53 PM

Great post as usual. And toilet paper is the worst thing to shop for in the store. There are so many choices, and they are all packaged differently. There are single roles, double roles, mega roles, and more. The number of sheets per roll vary by brand, and the number of rolls in a package vary. It is impossible to find the best value. Impossible. I just get the Scott's 1000, which is, ahem, crappy paper, but I'm pretty sure it's the cheapest. What's worse is if my wife goes to the store I tend to worry that she didn't get the best value. I think I'm neurotic.

Posted by: Lance Fisher | Feb 14, 2007 4:01:20 PM

Interesting! But I had to read it twice. On the first pass I was thinking of myself only as a user/customer who loves control and sees no diminishing return whatsoever to having as much of it as possible.

But from my perspective as a provider of professional services, I get it, and in fact designed my business model around not! giving user/clients control (of the process). So I'm asking myself: why do I skirt around "its best that I drive"? After all, I'm motivated by my belief that this is the best way to provide a great customer experience. Maybe its time to put it out there with clients.

In any case, I thinks its is a good place to walk a mile in the other's shoes. Thanks for the great post!

Posted by: mary wynne-wynter | Feb 14, 2007 5:08:51 PM

I think we're still all a little too poor at user interface, usability and accessibility to really turn our sites over completely to our users. And, right now, it's so unexpected that I don't think you can justify the means yet. Let the groundbreaking types do this and push it and we can all catch up when they've worked it out.

Posted by: Dawud Miracle | Feb 14, 2007 7:49:40 PM

The idea that too much choice can be dangerous or stressful reminds me of the notion Alvin Toffler puts forward in his book – Future Shock.
If asked I believe most users would rather have fewer, easier to use and reliable features than an excess of complicated and unreliable one. As a consumer I’d love to see product that while giving me the base features also meets my additional, and less common requirements. I don’t want everyones features, just those that relate to me.

Posted by: Olmec SInclair | Feb 14, 2007 8:32:47 PM

Actually, the bunny slope does have the passionate boarders, but they are focussed on getting to the black diamond. And when they get to the black diamond slope for the first time and get to the bottom with their heart in their throats they have a choice: repeat 'cause it was fun but scary, or retreat for awhile to the intermediate slopes to build up more skills. The intermediate slopes must be there to allow for the transition from beginner to expert- and that applies as much to software as it does to snowboarding. Keeping a passionate user requires the ability to make transitions in both directions and have noticable successes at all levels.

Posted by: Bren | Feb 15, 2007 6:34:54 AM

I like Ray Baxter's comment above about pastrami sandwiches. It's nice to have options, but I shouldn't be _required_ to make selections for which there are sensible (and delicious!) defaults.

The question of whether to _allow_ the user to choose is different from the question of whether to _require_ the user to choose.

Posted by: Robert de Forest | Feb 15, 2007 5:20:14 PM

Wonderful post! I am glad to see that I am not the only one who is tired of "choice". And speaking of DirectTV, I have never been happier since terminating my service and not having to scroll through channel after channel of junk, wasting my time of "supposed relaxation" in a state of quandry. I've found much more enjoyment in my one fuzzy station I can manage to pull off my little antenna (either CBS or NBC depending on atmospheric conditions), and if the channel you get happens to be the one you would prefer that night......sheer bliss.

Posted by: J. | Feb 16, 2007 12:22:44 PM

Lovely Article.

Posted by: Boy | Feb 16, 2007 1:49:55 PM

"The sad thing is, I'm probably just two button-presses away from success, but I swear the possible combinations of button-presses on my remote exceeds the number of particles in the known universe."

It does! The number of permutations is a function of the number of buttons on the remote and how many presses are required in the sequence. Assuming you don't press any one button more than once, the formula is: buttons! / (buttons - sequence)!

The low-end of the estimated number of particles in the universe is 10^72, which is [chuckle] _astronomically_ large.

But the amazing thing is that if your remote has 60 buttons, a sequence as short as 47 presses would yield more possible permutations than particles in the known universe (thank you, Ruby!).

Luckily, most products aren't that bad, but you can see just how close the lunatic fringe is!

Posted by: Zach A. Thomas | Feb 16, 2007 2:54:15 PM

Phenomenal piece. Love the diagrams & artwork!

Posted by: I SAW YOUR NANNY | Feb 16, 2007 7:29:00 PM

Fear teh canyon of pain.

How about taking the whole 'level up' concept of games and apply it to business applications. You start in the 'noob' ground and make you're way (slowly, gradulately) up to advanced user. So that you create a lot of 'omg this rocks' moments as a user moves up the complexity chain.

The downside with this is that you need to introduce a lot more 'modes' so that the process is gradual. And that can be quite a strain on the production process (as in, getting your developers to implent the same feature again and again only more advanced)

Posted by: Martijn Gorree | Feb 23, 2007 9:18:30 AM

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