The Problem with Android is Choice

Oct 14 2013 by Dave Feldman | 38 Comments

Android is flexible. Most reviews tout that as a key advantage of the operating system, particularly when it’s being compared with iOS.

To quote recent switcher Andy Ihknato:

Android has a consistent core philosophy that I find instinctively compelling: why wouldn’t a phone give its sole user a vote on how their device works?

Here’s why that’s a bad idea:

  1. Choice reduces user satisfaction.
  2. Choice reduces usability.
  3. Choice reduces product quality.

I’ll explain in a moment. But first, let’s see how choice plays out in the Android world.

Android: A Layer Cake of Choices

So you’ve decided to buy an Android phone.

Great! Which one?

Verizon (a top U.S. mobile service provider) offers you this dizzying amount of options to pick from: G2, Lucid 2, Spectrum 2, Enact, and Intuition by LG, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S 4, and Galaxy S III by Samsung, One and Droid DNA by HTC, Moto X, Droid Maxx, Droid Ultra, Droid Mini, Droid 4, and Droid Razr M by Motorola, Hydro Elite by Kyocera, Marauder and Perception by Pantech, and the G’zOne Commando 4G LTE (really, this is the name of this smartphone) and G’zOne Commando by Casio.

Thankfully there are filters on Verizon’s site. You can filter for DROID, 4G Technology, ECO Specs, Certified Pre-Owned, Global Ready, Physical Keyboard, NFC, and Accessory Bundles.

What? Fine.

At some point you make a decision on which phone to buy.

You download a bunch of apps and set up your home screen. Good news! You have choices here too.

There’s a drawer with an alphabetical list of all your apps.

On some phones, there’s a Favorites page.

You can have a potentially infinite number of home screen pages (which is different from the Favorites page).

And on each of those, you can create folders.

There’s a dock at the bottom that’s shared amongst all the home screens, but not the alphabetical list or the Favorites page.

You can set up shortcuts on your lock screen that look like — but are different from — the dock.

And don’t forget: You can have multiple copies of the same app in the same place:

There's more than one pile of crap here.There’s more than one pile of crap here.

Later, a friend texts you a hilarious photo. You’d like to save it for later. You’re presented with these choices:

Note that this dialog window has a scroll bar.

And that list of choices only gets longer because each app you install adds itself to it.

Over time — talking to friends, reading blogs — you’ll realize you’ve barely scratched the surface of Android choice.

You can install custom lock screens!

Launchers!

Replacement phone apps!

Different fonts!

Each choice comes with its own set of choices: entire marketplaces of themes, screens upon screens of settings, a never-ending buffet of choices. Some conflict with each other, some are crashy, some slow down your entire Android experience.

Sounds like fun, right?

Choice Reduces Satisfaction

As a society we’re deluded about choice.

We perpetuate the myth that more is better — yet there’s research going back decades to suggest the opposite.

Perhaps the most famous is Sheena Iyengar’s 1995 "jam jar study", which showed a 4x increase in options decreased purchases by 85%.

Iyengar’s study is not alone. Barry Schwartz’s excellent book The Paradox of Choice covers the problem in detail. Of particular interest is his discussion of how choice affects buyer’s remorse. The more choices you consider, the more likely you’ll be to regret your decision, and the less satisfied you’ll be.

That’s bad enough in a traditional retail environment, where you make your purchase and move on. But it’s worse in the world of software, where apps are cheap and each app provides its own array of options.

On Android, it’s easy to end up in an infinite, layered world of choices; never quite satisfied, never quite sure if what you’ve got is the best, and — critically — never done.

Choosing vs. Tinkering

There’s a distinction here between choosing and tinkering.

We all have friends who tinker with their cars, their bikes, their computers. It’s a hobby, and the constant fiddling is a destination in itself rather than just the journey. For such hobbyists, a plethora of choices is necessary: it’s the fuel that powers the tinkering.

I think many who extol Android’s flexibility fall into the tinkerer category, including some tech bloggers. They love all the ways they can customize their phones, not because they’re seeking some perfect setup, but because they can swap in a new launcher every week. That’s fun for them; but they’ve made the mistake of not understanding how their motivation differs from the rest of us.

Choice Reduces Usability

We often talk about the best products being simple. But that’s not quite it: The best products are opinionated.

A great product is one you can disagree with because its creators have made choices on your behalf. If they’re good product designers, they’ve made good choices, and the result is that much-lauded simplicity.

But if they’ve punted too many times — resolving tough decisions with a checkbox here, a slider there — then they’ve shifted that responsibility onto you.

It’s like going to a restaurant, ordering, and having the waiter ask you, How much coriander do you want on that? OK, and should we cook it for twelve minutes or for eighteen?

Choices can be a burden when you’re qualified to make them, and a disaster when you’re not.

Do you know what to choose here?Do you know what to choose here? I don’t. I bet someone at Google does. Perhaps they could make the choice for us.

Most of us (even us product designers) don’t want to be product designers when we’re using someone else’s product. We just want to live our lives.

Choices vs. Preferences

It’s also worth distinguishing between choice and preference.

Preferences can be a great way to support multiple use cases, or subgroups in your user base. Vertical vs. horizontal layout for widescreen vs. normal displays. Small vs. large fonts for young vs. old eyes.

But there’s a fine line between valuable preferences and excessive choice. Everyone has preferences, including every member of your product team. (Indeed, failure to resolve team disagreements can be a source of user-facing choice.)

Catering to all individual preferences creates a bloated, bland product. Not to mention a UI that’s impossible to navigate.

Furthermore, people are notoriously bad at identifying what we want. And what we do want is influenced heavily by what we know — our expectations are constrained by our experience.

To deliver a product that will improve people’s lives, we must sometimes break expectations and force users through a period of adjustment. The long-term path to user satisfaction sometimes involves short-term dissatisfaction.

Apple has been remarkably good at this type of product development — from OS X to their Intel transition to iOS 7– breaking away from past choices to provide a streamlined, initially unfamiliar product that’s forward-looking.

Microsoft, on the other hand, tends to retain all the choices of the past, as Windows 8′s dual UI illustrates. That’s a shame. No matter how good Metro might be, a sizable number of users will revert to the old UI because they know it. And that ensures Metro will remain sup-par: Microsoft’s product teams can avoid tackling difficult product design problems because users can always resort to the old experience.

The situation is similar on Android: by allowing extensive customization — and by permitting vendors, carriers, and users to replace built-in apps with third-party ones — Android’s product team has excused themselves from finding optimal solutions and making tough decisions.

Choice Reduces Product Quality

It takes a lot of code to produce software. And bugs are unavoidable because developers are human, and because that’s what happens with a system whose many, many moving parts are constantly changing with an incomplete awareness of each other and the dependencies among them.

To test effectively, it’s necessary to replicate as many of the conditions under which the product might run as possible. And to fix a bug, a developer needs to reproduce it–make it happen again so she can see what’s really going on.

So, software teams spend a huge percentage of their time finding and fixing bugs.

The more variation, the more testing, and the harder it becomes to replicate a bug when it’s found.

This is why Android’s fragmentation — the array of Android versions and devices an app must support — is such an issue.

We can’t control fragmentation, but we can avoid exacerbating it. When we introduce excessive choice, we increase the number of possible environments in which something could break, and the number of conditions we have to test. That increase isn’t additive, it’s multiplicative: the number of conditions downstream of a choice is multiplied by the number of options it provides.

On its own, this isn’t an excuse for eliminating choices. But it is the technical cost those choices incur — something we ignore at our product’s peril.

This is also why seemingly harmless choices aren’t so harmless; why "Let’s just stick a checkbox in Advanced preferences" isn’t an answer.

We need time to test and debug. And when we do, something else has to give.

The problem of choice isn’t limited to Android. Android is just a current, prominent, and severe example.

Simple, elegant, usable, opinionated products are few and far between because the product teams willing to make hard choices are rare.

So, what have you left out of your product lately?

Epilogue: Dealing With User Feedback

With Emu in beta, we get a lot of feedback.

We love feedback — it’s wonderful that people care enough about our product to email us.

But we don’t implement every request — that way lies exactly the sort of bloat I’ve discussed here.

To begin with, the loudest users aren’t necessarily the most typical; someone might request a feature that would genuinely improve his experience, at the expense of most other users.

More importantly, user feedback requires sleuthing. Users often don’t know, or can’t articulate, what they really want. So we look at each request and ask, What is this person really trying to accomplish? How do we best serve that goal?

Sometimes the result will be more effective — and better-suited to the underlying need — than whatever the user requested in the first place.

And that sort of innovation is incredibly satisfying.

Related Content

About the Author

Dave Feldman is a product designer with a background in user experience, product management, and front-end development. He’s the co-founder and chief product officer of Emu. He’s held positions at Yahoo! and AOL. Check out his website Operation Project and follow him on Twitter @dfeldman.

38 Comments

Jim

October 14th, 2013

A lot of your arguments are misunderstandings of the platform (docks on app drawer, 3rd party themes). Others are simply inaccurate (infinite home screens, multiple copies of apps). The rest would make George Orwell proud.

Though I’m having a difficult time understanding how any of this ties into the myth of Android fragmentation from a 3rd party developer or designer’s standpoint. The core services and UI paradigms available are standard on all versions 2.3 and up.

Also considering these opinions, I’m very curious that you’ve chosen the Android platform for the app that you’ve co-founded.

Peter K.

October 14th, 2013

While I agree that the difficulty of Android for programmers is there, I disagree with some of your arguments and examples.

Lets look at your Windows 8 example. Microsoft broke a mold that business relied on for the past 20 years, and did little to help developers move their applications to the “Metro” interface. Yes, users do switch to the old UI, but if their applications aren’t “Metro” compatible, then they are not given the option to embrace the new UI. Microsoft has a captive audience, but poor choices are leaving software developers to deal with a new UI and users who won’t upgrade. Rather than make a new application for “Metro” they are improving their application and continuing to use Explorer.

The example of choosing an input method in Android is also poor. The choices are clearly labeled and any smartphone user should know the difference between a “keyboard” and “voice input”. With the exception of style differences, that choice has been the same since at least version 2.3.

Apple makes great hardware and a simple interface, but prices themselves out of the range of many consumers. Android, while fragmented, is free and can be put on basically any hardware. So now we have a wealth of phones that are all different with the same underlying OS. That OS has style guidelines that, if followed, allow for easy development and testing.

This article feels like a push for Apple’s products to make life easier for a developer. If the developer really wanted to be innovative, they would make up for the supposed shortcomings of the Android OS with a great product.

Charley

October 14th, 2013

I love this article – tells it as it is. I’m an Android user, and I’ve noticed most of the things you mentioned. I can’t count how many times I’ve found myself tweaking my home screen and trying to make it look the best it could. This usually results in an epic failure which sends me right back to where I started (the default homescreen).

I’ve also learnt something new here. I run an affiliate website which isn’t really doing well in spite of all the advice I’ve followed and tips even though the targeted traffic is there. I’m currently offering more than 8 product choices to my visitors. After reading this article, I think it’s high time I trimmed that. I’ll reduce the number of product choices and see how it affects my conversions. Thanks for this informative piece.

Austin

October 14th, 2013

What a complete load of bullshit nonsense.

I’m just going to go down your post and call out everything I see that is false, bad logic, or just plain misleading.

First off, no one selects phone by carrier. That’s a ridiculous way of thinking. Nearly every phone manufacturer makes devices for every carrier. So you pick from a manufacturer that you know and trust and select a device that works on your carrier. For every manufacturer there are flagship phones and there are budget phones. I guarantee you that the vast majority of users have only heard of perhaps half the devices on that list.

Next, are you really going to suggest that having multiple homes screens AND an app drawer is to complicated? Or that the ability to have multiple copies of the same app is a drawback? How dumb do you think the majority of users are? I guess in your eyes we should all go back to using brick phones.

Next you take issue with the app linking that is native in Android. This isn’t an issue, it’s a feature. It’s one of the things that has no copy on the Apple side of the house. If you have a picture, you are presented with a list of apps that can take pictures as input. Either to transfer, save, post, etc that picture. It’s a coordination between apps that doesn’t exist on iOS, where you can only share inputs between stock apps.

>Custom Lock Screens
>Launchers
>Replacement Phone Apps
>Different Fonts

All of the above are way outside the “normal” user experience. They are options that exist solely for the “tinkerer” individuals you so kindly mention further down your article. Soccer Mom Sandy isn’t going to spend time downloading and trying out different launchers and fonts. She is going to stay with the default launcher, font, most of the default apps, etc. Your point here is moot.

Next. Ah, finally. SOURCES. Is there a link between choice and buyers remorse? Definitely. But it’s not limited to Android. It’s the reason that BMW, Ford, Audi, Samsung, HTC, Sony, Microsoft, any many others (including Apple) advertise. It has nothing to do with getting the word out, it has everything to do with combating buyers regret. Any time you make a large purchase like this, you are going to experience buyers regret. So yes, it exists, but please don’t try to pretend it is a solely Android problem. As soon as someone buys a Windows Phone, or an iPhone, or an Android, whatever, they are going to experience buyers regret. Unless of course they are completely deluded in to thinking that their brand is the end-all-be-all of phones/TVs/Cars/etc.

>I think many who extol Android’s flexibility fall into the tinkerer category

I disagree. Of course, neither of us has any way to back our opinions up. I however think that most people are tired of companies making decisions for them.

>But if they’ve punted too many times — resolving tough decisions with a checkbox here, a slider there — then they’ve shifted that responsibility onto you.

No no no. Android devs haven’t shifted the responsibility to anyone. The devs make design choices – good ones IMO – but they also realize that their tastes do not reflect those of everyone else. So they make it possible for a user to change certain parts of the product. But don’t act like Android devs just shrugged and said “Fuck it, let the users decide”. They made decisions, implemented them in the defaults, and left a choice in some menu somewhere in the settings to alter that choice if the user desires.

And your restaurant analogy simply does not apply. When you order, if you are at a reputable restaurant, you are offered an array of options (not to mention the menu itself). How do you want your steak? What sides would you like with that?

And you really can’t read the choice and see that you are given the option between a keyboard and voice? How is that an issue? Additionally, unless you decide to install a new keyboard (which normal users would not do), you won’t ever see any additional options there. So on this point you are either a) blind b) ignorant or c) purposefully trying to steer users away from Android.

Your Choices vs Preferences section is so bloated with bullshit I don’t even want to take the time to piece through it all. So just piecemeal: choices and preferences are the same damn thing, if you think Android UI is impossible to navigate you obviously haven’t used one since the G1, and Microsoft’s shortfalls cannot be placed on Android. Everything else in this section is just bullshit and semantics.

Choice reduces product quality only when you limit the number of people who test. Android is open source. Because of that, Android has a ridiculously larger testing pool than Apple could ever staff. Obviously, not every Joe Schmoe is downloading the source code and looking through it for errors or possible improvements. But the fact is that there are many many people who do.

Aside from the source, I’ve never encountered software (other than custom firmwares) that is device dependent. You never see an app on the Play Store that has a list of devices it works on. You see the Android versions it works on. The only thing that may affect user experience is if the app isn’t optimized for their screen size. But that is an issue with Apple products as well, so it’s not something you can complain at Android about.

All in all, your article reads like an Apple fanboy who has never actually used Android for any real period of time has set out to defend his beloved device using bad logic and semantics.

Either that or you have an extremely low opinion of users.

Dr. Truth

October 15th, 2013

Sometimes there is no substitute for choice. Well, there is, and it’s called limitation. I’d rather have a choice, and simply learn or “bookmark” the most common actions, than not have a choice at all.

Also, considering your site emu.is is a giant wall of text, I’m not going to take any UX advice from you.

fauxscot

October 15th, 2013

Good article. I see you have some comments that disagree with your observations and conclusions.

While I can appreciate where these folks are coming from, I think their comments serve to bolster your case. Folks here are here because this is where folks who are tech savvy come….odd places and blogs on the internet. And they are vocal with their points (and not too polite, as well.)

I think you have articulated something key between IOS and Android and most definitely agree that Apple has limited choice. It’s the biggest (no kidding) complaint I hear from my very, very few friends who have Androids. “Apple limits your choices”. Damn right. And to great effect.

I still help little old ladies every day with their Windows machines. They can find the power button and download 50 browser helpers and malware items. Many high school graduates in the USA can’t tell you where Equador is. Or Peru. Having a low opinion of the user is not evil, it’s realistic. Americans in particular are poorly educated, technically unsophisticated, and WANT tech to make their decisions. As an engineer, I constantly gripe that what pisses me off more than anything is the comment “I don’t care how it works, I just want it to work. Make it work.” Make me fume.

I have 40 years in tech. I CAN tinker. Love to tinker. Love to fix. Can fix. Own test equipment. Layout boards. Write firmware. Don’t own an iPhone (i have a feature phone Motorola clunker clamshell tracfone.) I am in demand in my posse to fix everything imaginable. The local paper writes articles on the stuff I do. And what you are saying is not speculation. My experience supports it. Folks don’t need 10% of the flexibility they buy. AND they don’t want it. Nerds and geeks like us might, but the reason we’re unusual is because there aren’t many of us.

Android has this problem. Windows this problem. IOS/OSX, not so much. Linux invented this problem! (I actually think Linux and Android share this dynamic. Nothing quite works perfectly, but the price is sure good. And don’t get me wrong, Linux is impressive. And so is Android. But this is what they have. The ‘not quite’ finish.)

Good article. Well written and reasoned and I can see you have time in the trenches.

Thurtin Wellovia

October 15th, 2013

It’s Steve Jobs’ secret love-child, complete with a sneering condescension for the masses AND unwanted advice for everyone.

Props!

Srsly, I have to say your comments are not grounded in any reality I know of, and many of your examples are laughably absurd.

And that study you mentioned was not about purchase behavior, but rather brand retention and recall.

Please take your ‘Choice Reduces Product Quality’ mantra back to North Korea. Thanks!

Yachats

October 15th, 2013

It must frustrate the author when buying a car that there are so many models to choose from. Maybe he’d be happier with 1 model per company.
Who does this but Apple and users are left only 1 choice – Apples way, not their way. My Droid is customized for my needs not Apples.

Didier

October 15th, 2013

Honestly… I think it’s not a good article. While I agree that giving too much choice is usually not a good thing in terms of user experience… This article is just applying blindly this rule without trying to analyze anything. I think that the result is often irrelevant.

If choice is not good, constraining users in some so called “optimized” use cases is equally bad if not worse.

Some companies pretend to know how to make choices for users… They just make choices based on a specific market that often happens to be the North American market. I can’t speak for North American customers but based on my experience those choices are wildly irrelevant for other countries. You can’t build 1 mobile operating system that will be relevant to all markets if it doesn’t allow some level of customisation.

Android is Google operating system… But more than that, for a lot of companies around the world, this Google experience doesn’t make sense. Android is there more a platform to build their products on. They need a platform to start because there is no added value in building an operating system from scratch. The added value is how you promote your services on top of the OS… And in the process they can get rid of/ignore what Google did. This is what Xiaomi, Amazon and to some extent even Samsung understood. So, for this article, does it even make sense to generalize some concepts that without even trying to analyze why it is like that?

David Dempsey

October 15th, 2013

Oh, I read the author’s previous work. “Animal Farm”

gprovida

October 15th, 2013

When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?
Sheena S. Iyengar Columbia University Mark R. Lepper Stanford University

“Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better—that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from 3 experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer. These experiments, which were conducted in both field and laboratory settings, show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been limited. Implications for future research are discussed”

http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/articles/Choice_is_Demotivating.pdf

JackLennon

October 15th, 2013

Using android, iOS and WinPho8 as part of a daily routine, I can’t agree more.

By trying to make all type of users happy, you are compromising all users’ satisfaction. In the end, it takes fanboys to defend a universe made for nobody.

I just can’t stand that Google (and manufacturers) are trying to reach absolute opposite users, which results in something so weak that you are just wasting part of your life setting your phone. That’s not what I aloud call a “smart” phone experience.

On the other hand, Microsoft has learnt from Windows Mobile clutter and is trying to make something the good way. Alas they are trying to impose Modern Ui where it doesn’t belong,,, which is a sad decision.

I consider the problem is all about clutter and poor quality freedom. It’s not about choice and high quality freedom.

Clutter means you have to make decisions because designers are cowards.

Choice means you can make decisions that you as the user shall make.

Poor quality freedom means the illusion of freedom given through clutter. You actually have to declutter in order to get things right (for you).

High quality freedom means the delight of freedom given through potentiality. You can add things in order to get things done.

To me, unfortunately, android is heading towards clutter and poor quality freedom. It’s an illusion of choice based on “the more, the better”, which isn’t true at all since it costs billions in product returns in the US alone. Sadly, that isn’t something you will feel on the web, and that is not something android sheeps will dream either.

Backlogger

October 15th, 2013

Choice is good. Too little choice or too much choice is bad.

iOS, which I use and prefer, has only one major pain point for me: Not enough choice.

Being able to choose which app you would like to use for a particular function is something that iOS needs.

Rita Brooks

October 15th, 2013

Interesting article, as an android user I can relate to a lot of this, personally.

Brad

October 15th, 2013

Austin, you should really listen to yourself sometimes. In an attempt to win your arguement by tearing down the post point for point, you belched out gibberish which showed very shallow understanding of your own arguements.

For example, according to you, companies spend on advertising has nothing to do with getting the word out. Really?

Need I say more?

Mike

October 15th, 2013

Angry online comments? Check. Validation that you’re right :)

BTW, the majority of people who would comment on a blog like this, are the “tinkerers”.

Dave Feldman

October 15th, 2013

@Jim: You wrote, ” The core services and UI paradigms available are standard on all versions 2.3 and up.” As someone who’s been trying to build and debug just across Androids 4.0-4.3 I can tell you that’s simply not true. APIs, capabilities, and UI have changed; Google has done a decent job smoothing out the differences with the Support Library but it’s not perfect. There are also different bugs from version to version that require workarounds. But the bigger problem is that Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and to a lesser extent the carriers have each built their own modified version of Android. The net result is the aforementioned fragmentation. For instance, right now we’re in the process of addressing a bug that only affects Galaxy S4 users (so, Android 4.2) on Sprint and Verizon, and only if they enable Samsung’s MultiWindow functionality.

@Peter K: Re Windows 8: I don’t mean to minimize the position Microsoft is in. Maybe Metro wasn’t a good idea in the first place. But if they were going to do Metro at all, I think they needed to eliminate the choice of doing things the old way. Otherwise, Metro’s doomed whether it’s good or bad, because going back to the familiar is easier than trying something new.

Re choosing an input: I don’t fully understand the choice myself, and I write software for a living. (Insert flame about how I’m not very bright.) Android’s keyboard has a voice input button on it, so why am I making a system-level choice between keyboard and voice input? (I don’t need an answer; I’m merely pointing out that the choice is opaque.)

Re making life easier for developers: My main point was more about design that development, but frankly I think making life easier for developers is a great way to improve product quality. The less time you spend debugging and testing, the more time you have to build and refine.

@Charley: Glad to be helpful…I hope my advice turns out to be worthwhile!

@Austin: It makes me sad that you feel the need to resort to personal attacks. So I’ll leave my response at this: my Verizon Galaxy S4 comes with three keyboards, two speech recognition options, and two navigation apps preinstalled.

mads

October 16th, 2013

Dear Dave

regarding your scientific backed up statement ; “The more choices you consider, the more likely you’ll be to regret your decision, and the less satisfied you’ll be.”

Other studies has showed the following (and opposite) ;

“The overall mean effect size across 63 conditions from
50 experiments in our meta-analysis was virtually zero. On
the basis of the data, no sufficient conditions could be iden-
tified that would lead to a reliable occurrence of choice
overload.”

http://www.scheibehenne.de/ScheibehenneGreifenederTodd2010.pdf

Best regards

Mads, Denmark

Alexander R Pruss

October 16th, 2013

I see choice in hardware and software as a way of respecting persons, respecting the legitimate diversity between users’
- physical abilities: vision; hearing; fine motor skills; hand size; number of hands; etc.
- intellectual skills: learning and memory (visual, verbal and procedural); hand-eye coordination; general intelligence; linguistic
- personal projects: content creation vs. content consumption balance; profession (e.g., people in technical fields often send emails and texts that requires the inclusion of punctuation like braces and less-than signs and do not want to switch modes on an on-screen keyboard for that; people in financial fields may need to switch between numbers and text more often); special contexts of use (e.g., it is essential to amateur astronomers to be able to customize the colors on a display to red-on-black not to to disturb night vision); etc.
- patterns of behavior (e.g., some people read in the dark after their spouse has gone to bed; others, sit outside in the sun to read)
- amount of time available to learn
- aesthetic preferences.

Even leaving out the last item, there is an enormous diversity between users that needs to be respected.

One can no doubt make an elegant and simple product that will satisfy 80-90% of users without offering much choice. But the 10-20% of remaining users should not be neglected. First and foremost, out of simple respect for the legitimate diversity in our fellow humans, including the special needs and projects of minorities. Second, because people who act, feel and think differently from the majority might be overrepresented among those willing to spend money on apps or the latest hardware.

In addition to lots of config options, some of the diversity can be catered to through open source. You can make an elegant and simple UI, but someone else can release a hacked version for the minority of users who need or want it. You can also handle some of the diversity by EULAs that do not prohibit, like most EULAs do, user modification.

Alexander R Pruss

October 16th, 2013

Let me add something on the complexity of testing code with lots of configuration options. Good programming practices require things like modularity and avoiding hard-coded constants. And these practices lend themselves well to configuration options.

If I am writing a launcher and I have a global ICONS_PER_ROW=4 constant, it adds very little complexity to replace this with mIconsPerRow everywhere, insert mIconsPerRow = options.getInt(Options.OPT_ICONS_PER_ROW, 4) somewhere, and then add a couple of lines to xml files for a config screen.

Of course, some combinations of configuration options might result in undesirable behavior, say overlapping icons or in a crash. But notice that this might just be a case of turning on the light to see the bugs or bad coding practices that were already there in the dark. Perhaps things crash when the user increases the number of icons per row because due to lack of memory. But then the app might well have crashed anyway in an even lower memory situation. Or perhaps when I add a checkbox allowing the user to disable a toolbar, the app stops working when users turn off the toolbar in some cases. If so, that might well be a sign that the toolbar init code had some undocumented side-effect, which while technically not a bug was a bad programming practice that could well have led to a bug in a future revision.

And for software where security and personal safety (e.g., not a phone dialer!) is not an issue, I think there is nothing at all wrong with even including a section of “Advanced and substantially untested” configuration options. Sometimes an occasional crash will be preferable to a user to *never* being able to use the app the way she wants to.

I should add that I am a developer and a moderate tinkerer. Moderate, because once I get something right, I don’t change it.

David Keyworth

October 16th, 2013

So here’s the thing about restaurants, Austin:

Restaurants started asking people how well they’d like their steak done because there were actually a large number of people who had varying preferences for it. Furthermore, since rare steak has the potential to be more dangerous to eat, it makes sense to only grant it at someone’s request. But it would still be utterly ridiculous for the patron to be making ALL of the choices of cooking:
“Which spices should we cook the meat with? Your preference.”
“Should we cook the rice 15 minutes for a more dry taste, or 20 minutes to make it wet and fluffy?”

Actually, part of the appeal of cooking for yourself at home is that you get to make all these choices yourself – and a lot of people LIKE to make those. Master chefs can settle into that exact taste that they happen to like more than anyone, a dish that might not be so fitting for other people as it turns out. “Shaken, not stirred.”

Even the point about keyboard vs voice – the most direct consequences of that decision are clear, but the more indirect reasoning for it, or which method might be easier, is not. A more “centered” experience might first put the user into the input method considered easier, and then allow them the option to switch if they’re more investigative.

Peter K: Windows 8 isn’t really an issue of not giving enough choice, exactly – it’s mostly an issue of poor design and usability. Forcing a If the programmability and usability of Windows 8 were far superior, I don’t think there would be as many complaints about it.

Austin: To say that Android software is not device-dependent is disingenuous. Maybe there’s very little requiring you to have a particular Android device, but there’s definitely been plenty of Android software that just doesn’t work on particular devices, even when the OS level is supported.

Personally, as someone who modifies his desktop PC all the time, mods PC games, and even cooks food at home: I love my Windows Phone, partly because of the lack of choice. It certainly helps that the choices imposed on me are pretty good ones. I really only want my phone to be a simple-to-use, but effective, smartphone (rather than some sort of fully-moddable handheld computer) and Windows Phone has done that excellently.

And it’s good that Android is available as a choice for people who want more tinkering – just like Linux computers are available. But I’m sure 90% of Android users aren’t as especially appreciative of choice as the geeks.

Daniel L.

October 16th, 2013

It’s nice to see social psychology being applied to the tech field, but I believe you’ve misinterpreted Iyengar’s work and its applicability to this situation. The paradox of choice applies to all choices a consumer is cognitively aware of when all other variables are held equal. That is, if a consumer is aware of the existence of desirable Android handsets (which is likely), picking an iPhone over an Android is in itself a choice and will lower overall satisfaction with the purchase of the iPhone. Iyengar indicates that categorization only insulates consumers if the categories have an obvious difference between them in the sense that consumers are aware that the choices will allow for differing outcomes (e.g a women’s magazine vs. a tech magazine) which is not at all the case for smartphones. If the categories are created on some post-hoc rational basis (for example, android or apple fanboys), the phenomena would still affect them. This is because social psychologists believe that the dissatisfaction is in fact /created/ by post-hoc rationalization, and phenomena such as android/apple fanboyism is a behavioral /response/ to this negative affect. Iyengar has explored this in some of her political psychology work as well as subsequent research showing that consumers will attempt some categorization based on factors like quality.

As such, the only way to be insulated from this negative affect is to be cognitively unaware that choice exists. I would posit that the average consumer is not aware of the level of choice you’ve indicated the Android interface allows and so would be insulated from this. Your point about tinkerers is good; but what we’re seeing here is a dispositional effect: Tinkerers have different dispositions from the average population and can’t insulate themselves from this negative affect, which eventually translates into the toxic Apple/Android fanboy behavior.

ack

October 16th, 2013

Ah, the choice paradox. One thing often missed is that choice becomes more important and easier as the general population becomes familiar with the particular technology.

The concept that “simpler is better” or “less is more” assumes that people are static – that they are not able to learn or adapt. And there is a part of the population that is unwilling to do so – those who claim to be “too old” to learn.

Terra

October 16th, 2013

@Jim @Austin You sound like non-dev. I have developed exactly same app on both iOS and Android. I and my boss had a lot of hassles and headache to get Android version on par with iOS version, because of its fragmentation and of its performance. You have no idea how bad it is.

sicofante

October 16th, 2013

Yeah, choice… That’s the huge problem cereals face too…

Wake up already. It’s Q4-2013. A technology that’s used by two thirds of the world’s smartphone userbase can’t be characterized as one for tinkerers. That could have flown four years ago. It’s borderline idiotic today.

Thomas Hancock

October 17th, 2013

I am amused that the few comments here exactly reflect your description of users and tinkerers. I’m somewhat on the tinkering side, but less so than in the past.

The development-minded here go into long and technical detail about why you are not the right religion. This article, however, would be well-received by almost all actual users of non only Android but many new computing products. These are people who don’t man the barricades for a brand or computing philosophy (Android vs. iOS? laughable, no one cares) but want something that works for daily tasks and maybe entertainment.

More than that, the proliferation of choice is a major drag to effective use of technology in general. I don’t like the fact that Windows 7 gives me 20 ways to perform the same task; it means I’m less likely to remember one. Windows 8? I should live so long as to think I need to upgrade and learn a new system–I still have a Windows XP partition. Is Windows 8 better? Who cares? I’m not a developer seeking a holy grail, nor that far along the autism spectrum.

Anyway, this seems like common sense. As the man said, “Too much freedom leads to the madhouse.” It’s the libertarian zeitgeist.

Welcome to the madhouse.

Rob

October 17th, 2013

Uh Dave, did you remember to lock your black Model T when you arrived at work today? Choice upfront is always better for the consumer in cars or technology — self-awareness on the consumer’s part is key in determining what choices meet their individual needs. Maybe mandatory “mindless certified” stickers on some products will protect those fearing rational choice will help the consumer you worry about.

busta

October 17th, 2013

“have it your way.”

easy to tell you are a developer, not sure why this post wasn’t edited more. it’s a burden to read really.

most of your complaints seemingly center around launchers and homescreens, this has little to do with how your app performs. i’m very confused by this article. i’ve opened up google maps on multiple android devices and iphones, it works pretty much the same no matter what device i’m using.

to me, it’s lazy to assume one company will provide all the answers and solutions to my problems. choice isn’t a burden when done right, intents in android slays ios6 and 7. apple is playing catch up as usual.

rohit

October 18th, 2013

the comment by austin takes care of most of my opinions… but I guess Iphone lovers will keep finding reasons to stick with it even if the reasons are just dumb. the iphone does have a lot of benefits but those are due to its community, targeted audience, higher number of paying consumers, but they are not the technological leaders anymore.

John

October 18th, 2013

You should update your premises re: rational choice theory.

Schwartz’s book and this entire category of psych/behavioral econ has been more or less entirely debunked or radically refined. A lot’s happened since the 90s. The reason Schwartz, Gregg Easterbrook, the NYT link you posted above, et al. are still citing Iyengar’s study is because it hasn’t been replicated, at least not by researchers using well-designed controls.

Hansel

October 20th, 2013

Austin: “No no no. Android devs haven’t shifted the responsibility to anyone. The devs make design choices – good ones IMO – but they also realize that their tastes do not reflect those of everyone else. So they make it possible for a user to change certain parts of the product. But don’t act like Android devs just shrugged and said “Fuck it, let the users decide”. They made decisions, implemented them in the defaults, and left a choice in some menu somewhere in the settings to alter that choice if the user desires.”

You’re experience is that Android devs make good choices? It sounds like you’re so firmly in the Android kool-aid that you have no knowledge from outside to compare with.

You’ve made the assumption that the choices that are given are good. Yet what you don’t realize is that some of us have a hard time finding that Google themselves make good choices. If I can’t even depend on Google to make decent choices for Android settings and design, I surely can’t expect even the average developer to do it right either.

Case 1:
Nexus S. Out of the box Gingerbread, there’s multiple problems. One of which is that with ASOP, no 3rd party software, t-mobile sim card, the phone gets 8 hours of battery life while it sits on the table, with display off, and nobody touching it. Reason? Google latitude has decided to continually wake the phone and use the radio to contact the server, despite my settings saying don’t share my location with others. For some reason, this doesn’t include Google itself. To fix the problem, you also have to sign out from Latitude. The common user wouldn’t understand the difference.

Case 2:
Nexus 4. For some reason, Google services attempts to use the data connection all the time for no known reason. Even just booting it up means that there’s at least 12 connections to Google IP addresses, even when I’ve turned off pretty much all of the automatic sync options in the Account settings. This hurts battery life. It also hurts the user experience as any apps I actually start and want to use are contending with the other apps for bandwidth, and losing.
How do I know this? I linked the phone up to ADB immediately after a restart as I was fed up with the data activity indicator going nuts when I feel it shouldn’t be. Netstat tells me who: Google.
I’m not some random whiny user, I’m a developer with mobile experience dating back to the 1990s.

Next up, you argue that “Android devs haven’t shifted the responsibility to anyone.” Oh. Really?
Then explain to me why something like “Auto correction” has 4 settings: Off, Modest, Aggressive, Very Aggressive.
Especially because the auto-correction system learns from what you’ve typed, and is pretty much a requirement for all Android devices.
There should be either no setting at all (always on), or 2 settings: On/Off.
Having 4 settings means that they’ve either failed at testing the auto-correct system or failed at making it work well, and have decided to just let the user muck with it blindly. “Fuck it, let the users decide.” Has anybody here ever heard of a single person who wanted to tweak the aggressiveness of their Microsoft Word spell checker? No. Because that would be just silly.

Finally, you might not notice it, but the Android team at Google is pretty piss poor at designing good UIs.
What are some of the things that make good UIs?
Discoverability and logical navigation.

A quick one. Why does Settings:Language&Input:Google voice typing:Settings get you a black-on-white screen theme when Settings:Language&Input:Android keyboard:Settings get you a white-on-black screen theme? It’s jolting, and on first encounter, it gives you the impression that somebody screwed up. Because they did.

More annoyance: Mouse/Trackpad speed exists as an option when I have neither Mouse nor Trackpad.
This is a waste of space and just adds clutter.

Less noticeable: Why are the input language setting strings different between those two keyboards I mentioned above?
Android keyboard says : “Input languages”
Google voice typing says : “Choose input languages”
Why no consistency amongst Google apps? And it’s obvious the 2nd one is better because it tells you what it’ll do when you tap on it….. if only there was something that suggested that you could tap on it. Windows has ellipsis-on-buttons to suggest there’s more. WebOS and iOS have chevrons. Android 4? Nothing.

Seriously dumb:
Go to Settings:Language&Input, and look at the default keyboard row in the list view.
Tapping it displays only one option, and a button that says “set up input methods”.
1) If I only have one possible choice for a default, why does this exist?
2) “Set up input methods” takes me to a new list page, launched with a completely different navigation animation, that has just the keyboard section of Settings:Language&Input. So I’m now 4 clicks deep, and yet gained nothing from when I was 2 clicks deep, except that I saw an animation that normally means I’ve been taken out of this app…. except that it certainly looks like I haven’t. Who writes this crap?

Austin, your post reads like an Android fanboy who has never actually used anything else for a real period of time and has set out to to defend his beloved device’s bad code and semantics.

Pimm "de Chinchilla" Hogeling

October 20th, 2013

This article contains true wisdom. The epilogue is great.

A lot of software for Android is written by enthousiastic programmers. No interface designers or graphic designers ever touch it. I would not install this even if I caused by phone to excrete gold: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.contriving.ToggleAirplaneOnBoot

However, most of the article criticises “Android”, right in the heart. Odd, because I have the exact opposite experience when using a fresh Android device. That camera app, or “Hangouts”, or “Keep”… I dig those interfaces so much you would think I’m trying to get to Australia.

Your critique makes a lot of sense, but does not apply to the Android I know.

Users choose whether they type by tapping an on-screen keyboard or by speaking into the microphone. “Perhaps [Google] could make the choice for us.” Really, Dave?

Jason Shultz

October 21st, 2013

I think we should all go back to model t. After all, choice reduces user satisfaction. I’ll just take the car that Ford makes me because it’s good enough. Why would I wasn’t to change it?

Alexandre

November 1st, 2013

When i noticed you based one of your points on a 1995 research about usability (mobile phones didn’t even exist back then), i stopped reading.

Choice is not the problem. Choice is what will make Android kill IOS.

Matthew

November 3rd, 2013

This article is a brilliant example of two common logical fallacies, the false dichotomy, and the straw man. Well done.

Matthew

November 3rd, 2013

Hansel, You wrote:

“1) If I only have one possible choice for a default, why does this exist?
2) “Set up input methods” takes me to a new list page, launched with a completely different navigation animation, that has just the keyboard section of Settings:Language&Input. So I’m now 4 clicks deep, and yet gained nothing from when I was 2 clicks deep, except that I saw an animation that normally means I’ve been taken out of this app…. except that it certainly looks like I haven’t. Who writes this crap?”

These exist for the use of 3rd party keyboards such as Swiftkey and Swype. If you download a third party keyboard, you’ll get a toggle to switch to it to the default keyboard, and you can then set the allowed input methods as a subset for this keyboard.

As for the rest of your post, iss the interface design perfect? No way – but there are LOADS of stupid nitpicky things you can pick at in iOS too – don’t pretend it’s perfect.

Anyway, my point is just because it doesn’t make sense to you with your clearly limited Android experience, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist for a good reason.

Sigurd Andersen

November 7th, 2013

I’d like to comment on the last bit of your post – from
[
This is also why seemingly harmless choices aren’t so harmless; why "Let’s just stick a checkbox in Advanced preferences" isn’t an answer.
]
I’ve used computers for nearly 50 years. The above brings to mind the rancor I felt toward Microsoft for hiding all sorts of detail in its Registry. If it’s going to put all this “tweaking” in a common repository, I’d want much more control over that content – first of all, making it easy to back out any changes made to the registry by a particular action (such as installing software).
I’d also want to be able to wade through and understand it better – with what application is each piece of the registry associated? – what has to be there for the software to work, what is optional? – etc.

Jay

November 13th, 2013

Dave,

I understand where you’re coming from, but I have an argument that just goes and kills all of yours: my mother uses Android. Successfully. By which I mean, she gets done what she wants to do. She doesn’t care about nor is she confronted with many choices.

What you describe is valid for a user with a tinkerers ambition and a dummy’s aptitude. How many users like that are there?

My mother quickly figured out to use the homescreen icons that are there and the app list for stuff that’s not there. To compare, on iOS she would swipe through screens. Big diff.

I’ll concede that iOS has some nice features and will argue that Adnroid has other things that are better – wildly, wwildy, wildly varying depending on the user.

I’ll also concede Android is diffcult for developers to keep track of all the variants. Still, you and many others have opted to develop for Android, so I as a user don’t care whether it’s hard for you or not. Sorry.

And finally, the distinction between tinkerer and non is not binary, there are more than fifty shades of grey, and Android serves a different selection of shades than iOS, where’s the problem with that? Just don’t take away my choices from Android, I came running screaming from iOS because of it.

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