August 2011

Volume 26 Number 08

Don't Get Me Started - The Power of the Default

By David Platt | August 2011

David PlattRemember Clippy, the dancing, infuriating paper clip that used to pop up in Office? I’ll wait while your blood pressure recedes after the surge of hatred that name triggers. Lawyers Dahlia Lithwick and Brandt Goldstein described him well in their book “Me v. Everybody: Absurd Contracts for an Absurd World” (Workman Publishing Company, 2003): “The Maniacal-Paper-Clip-with-Eyebrows Provision. You will delete/destroy/disable whatever it is that allows that inane little [out-of-wedlock child] to leap around the bottom right-hand corner of my screen ... observing: ‘I see you’re writing a ransom note …’ or assuming that I wish it to turn all my letters into spreadsheets and my correspondence into numbered lists.”

ClippyAnd remember the joy at Clippy’s demise, with Microsoft Office XP in 2001? Bill Gates got a standing ovation for saying that “XP stands for Ex-Paperclip.” Clippy tried to interrupt and was yanked off the stage by a magnet while the crowd cheered. My favorite spoof is from NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” in which Clippy is dragged into the forest for a Mafia-style execution ( “It looks like you’re digging a grave. Can I help dig? Is this a business grave or a personal grave?”

You know what? All that fuss, the cheers and wailing and gnashing of teeth, was about the default state of a single checkbox. A user could always turn Clippy off, either by right-clicking or using the Tools | Options dialog. And after Clippy’s publicized removal, he still lurked in Office for six more years, undead, waiting to annoy anyone foolish enough to check the box that would reactivate him.

Behold the power of the default setting. It not only determines a user’s vital first impression of your program, it also determines the overall satisfaction of most of your users, and hence the success or failure of your product.

Few users ever change a program’s default settings. Some don’t know that they can, others don’t know where to start. The rest consider it more trouble than it’s worth, or fear damaging a working installation. UI guru Alan Cooper considers changing default settings to be the defining characteristic of an advanced user. Thinking of all the applications I use regularly, there isn’t one on which I’d consider myself an advanced user in this sense.

“Baloney, Plattski,” I hear you saying. “I change my programs’ settings all the time, just for the sheer pain of it.” Yes you do—because you’re a geek. But few of your users ever do.

It’s not enough to build a program with the correct feature set, or even with the correct configuration points. You also need to put that set into its optimal configuration by default, so users can use it without thinking. That means that you have to know who your users are, because they sure as heck aren’t you. (Where have I heard that before?)

For example, the default toolbar in Office 2003 contained a quick print button. Instead of displaying the full print dialog, this button simply printed one copy of the whole document on the default printer. But in Office 2007, the default quick access toolbar (far upper left) doesn’t contain a quick print button, although it contains Save, Undo and Redo. You’d think that quick printing is a feature that most users want; therefore it should be turned on by default.

To make this decision correctly, you need data about your users—not guesses, not “you’d think,” but good, hard data. My UI consulting clients sometimes object to the time and cost of data gathering, but there’s no substitute for it. If the Office team has data from their Customer Experience Improvement Program that proves most users don’t care about quick printing, then I withdraw my objection to its absence.

I’ll leave you with a scary thought. Clippy is actually back now, in the training game Ribbon Hero ( Imagine the 
horrors if he ever metastasized to Windows Phone 7. “I see you’re in a bar and you’re calling your ex. Are you sure that’s a good idea?” At least turn him off by default.

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at