Designing Settings

We spend crazy amounts of time creating personas and charting down user flows. We nail the product to its core and define different usage patterns and provide solutions to the various complexities involved. Often times we know that the one’s who use our products have different preferences, and so we go ahead and give users the ability to configure the product to their usage. This article will give you some guidelines in creating a good settings/preferences for your product.

Not everything is a setting!

Image from :

Story of the photo from Flickr

This is the clothes washer at the Airbnb apartment we’re staying in Prague. I could not understand the settings for the first load and it ended up washing our socks and underwear for, I kid you not, 3 hours.

The no. of choices and inputs are just too many in the above, the user had to tinker around to find the correct way to wash.

Difficult product decisions should never become a setting. For example: If there’s a debate in your team which is building an email client, whether to show four lines of summary or two lines of summary for each email. Do not make it a setting!

What should become as a setting?

This flowchart from android design guidelines gives you an idea on how to cho0se what becomes a setting and what doesn’t.

Android settings flow chart

Problems faced!


People infrequently use settings. Below are a few tweets of users trying to find a particular setting.

Confused, perplexed
Frustration, disappointment
Confused, perplexed

All these tweets have a negative sentiment, and give a hint of emotions like perplexity, tiresome, frustration and disappointment. What would follow is disinterest in using the product.

Tweets of people when they found the setting.


Its a sense of achievement for someone who’s found the setting to configure the product to the usage pattern. Changing a configuration shouldn’t be a task for product owners.


If you’ve handled a decent camera (point and shoot or DSLR) you would have faced this problem. My camera’s settings are the following, and I still don’t know what many of them actually do.

Whatsapp on iOS has the following settings for notifications:

New message > note and Group message > note isn’t quite easy to understand. Note is actually the tone which comes when a new message comes.


Car owners can relate to this: You lock the car and want to be sure, you pull the door and reassure yourself. In a scenario where you’ve parked the car, locked it and went inside a building. You can’t remember if you’ve locked it or have left it unlocked. Just to be sure you decide to go near the car and use your remote to lock it. But what if you had an indicator on your remote which showed the status of your car?

People cannot always remember the current status in which they’ve configured the product. They think they’ve configured it the wrong way and have second thoughts on what was the choice they made for a particular setting.


Misleading, icon driven and abbreviated labels often confuse product owners. As a thumb rule its better if the labels are descriptive in nature. If your product contains labels like General settings, Advanced settings, Options and Preferences user doesn’t know where to find something. In my camera (above) there are four tabs for camera’s image settings. How will anyone know whats in each tab? Or in whatsapp (above) how can one relate New Message > Note to the tone of notifications? The correct label would have been a variant of “New message sound” or “New message Tone.”

Defaults Configuration

Product designers ship the product with a default configuration, which they think is the best way to use the product. In certain cases the default settings are not universal, and unless the user sets the preferences the product is rendered useless.



A highly configurable product like the browser has way too many settings. Wayfinding is not so easy and in such cases searching a setting solves many problems. If your products has a lot of configurable options its always good to have a search.


Grouping helps people find their way to the desired configuration. There are two ways of grouping configurations the first is based on usage and the other is descriptive grouping.

Usage based grouping
On a broad level you could group all the configurations in two, general settings and advanced settings. When trying to do the grouping based on usage data plays an important role. Data alone can determine what’s a general setting and whats an advanced setting.

Based on the usage you could also give a quick settings option with the most frequently changed configurations. Nod32 an antivirus software does a great job by having the most frequently modified settings in a tab on the main screen.

Collect data to determine the usage of each configuration and come up with with a grouping based on usage. You could as well create a small questionnaire to ask what are the preferences of product owners. Based on the obtained data choose how much configurability to provide.

Descriptive grouping
A logical grouping with easily understandable group names add a lot to findability. You can employ several methods to come up with the most optimal grouping to structure the configurations.

Facebook settings Screen

Card sorting could be used to structure the settings in the best way. There are several ways in which you could do card sorting, choose the best way that suits your need.

Helper Text

Always include a helper text for settings that are not easily understandable. Android guidelines have specified settings as a pattern in material design and they insist on having a secondary text as description for switch settings.


Products should work for the user and not the other way around. The product can learn the way owner wants to use it on the first launch. If your product provides email notifications let the user choose how frequently to receives them. Instead of deciding a default configuration, in certain cases we could ask the product owner to set it.

For every application, iOS permissions for notifications are asked at the first launch.


Settings however used very infrequently are an important aspect of your product. When designing settings use clear titles and helper texts for not so straightforward settings. Make sure the settings are easy to find, make use of a search or group settings in a structured manner. A snapshot of the current status of the configuration helps users to choose the right setting.

Sponsorship Section

This article was sponsored by the fine folks at Shipmile. E-commerce startups who are having a tough time with shipments get in touch with them and stop worrying about the shipment process.

Thank you Prathyusha for collaborating on this article.

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