By Matt Birchler

Malleable Software

Settings are not a design failure

While I was reorganizing my phone, I had a sudden realization: Settings are typically seen as the result of design failure. The thinking goes that as designers, our goal is to create product experiences that don’t require any adjustments by the user. Consequently, offering customization options is interpreted as a failure to make firm product decisions. I think there is a misunderstanding about what settings really are.

It will be interesting to see how history looks back on this time in software design, but the past two decades could be largely summarized as “removing as much as possible to create the cleanest, most opinionated experiences possible”. However, there is a new trend developing all around flexibility. You don’t even need to get too niche to see examples of this reaping great rewards: Notion, Obsidian, Roam Research, Zapier, and Drafts come to mind immediately, and there is no shortage of enterprise software (like Jira) that is entirely built on the idea that software can be molded by the user in countless ways to do exactly what they want.

Obviously there is still tons of room for software that makes things stupid easy. Things 3 is a great example of this, as it’s very opinionated and lacks much customizability, but works perfectly for me. Not everyone needs every app to be complicated, but I do think that the days of automatically saying that an app is bad because it has a bunch of settings (or settings at all!).

Opinionated software is great, but so is malleable software.

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