TL Advisor Blog

The Curse of Default Settings...by Dean Shareski

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May 29, 2009 By: Tech Learning Blog Staff

May 28

Written by:
5/28/2009 5:10 PM  RssIcon

I'm always amazed at how excited people become when they find they don't have to accept the default settings of a product. Default settings in many cases provide a starting point but they often become a hindrance as users become more sophisticated or desire to use take more control. I'm more amazed at how many people never even think they options.

 

Here are a few examples:

 

The default browser of every Windows computer is Internet Explorer. It works will for basic web surfing but as many know has some huge disadvantages when compared to a browser like FireFox which offers a far greater degree of customization. When people discover the power of extensions, they never go back to IE. Yet over half of all computer users stick with IE, mostly because either they don't know another option exists, or they don't see why they would switch. They are oblivious to any options or ideas that they can have more control over their experience.

 

Have you ever been in a meeting and someone opens up a laptop, logs on and everywhere in the room has to hear the Windows chime theme while the person scrambles to turn the volume down? How does that sound do anything to add to the experience of computing? They likely have no idea that you can disable that sound. They just live with it. Grant it, it's a pretty minor issue but it's also an easy fix.

 

Here's a personal pet peeve. My wife on occasion gets to control the remote. When she does, she refuses to change the settings to "Subscribed Channels". Instead she leaves it on the default setting of "All Channels" and scrolls through a bunch of channels we don't get. I squirm impatiently in my chair and make a few comments but she refuses to change it. Maybe she just needs more practice. Unfortunately, that won't happen. I realize in this case she's doing it just to drive me nuts but I wonder how many others leave that setting as is and move through a number of channels they can't watch anyway.

 

Last week I was working with a class of students who are all using SmartPhones and we talked about successes and frustrations in using their phones. It was evident that those most frustrated were the ones who failed to change many of the settings to meet their needs. Those who had understood how to customize the phone were much more satisfied users. They truly owned their phones. I told them to start thinking like hackers. I asked them to think of their devices in terms of what it should be able to do rather than only what it does. The hacking mentality strives to "own the devices" not let the device own them.

 

I hadn't heard this story for a while but it made me think of the idea of default settings again,
A young woman was preparing a ham for a family dinner. She proceeded to cut the end off the ham prior to baking. Her husband asked why she did that, she said, "Mother always did and her ham was always very tasty". The husband, thinking that seemed odd, went into the other room where his mother-in-law sat and asked her why she cut the end off the ham. She said her mother did and it was always very tasty. Trying to solve this mystery, the husband called the grandmother on the phone to find out once and for all why she cut the end off the ham. The grandmother answered, "My roaster was too small to fit the entire ham".
The story has a number of variations but you get the idea. There's a lot of things we do and have no idea why and never consider to ask if there's a better way. I'm sure you make a number of connections here to our schools and learning institutions. There are hundreds of default settings that we simply accept either because we don't consider the alternatives or we think it's too much to change. That may be a valid response in some cases but as I told the students with the SmartPhones, starting to think like a hacker opens up more opportunities for customization. When we continue to blindly accept the default settings without asking, "can we do better?" we fail to recognize our ability to customize.  While I know this mantra may not work and be applicable in every situation it seems to me we CAN do better. I leave you with this quote.

 

  Rules spare us from thinking

 Now go turn off the Windows startup chime or buy a Mac.

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