Designing something complex? Use smart defaults

Simplify and save time by making choices for your users

Photo by Anna Shvets:

Sometimes, you must design to lessen complexity and frustration.

Whether designing a server configuration page with dozens of technical fields or workflows users must use hundreds of times a day, sometimes the best design is about reducing frustration and user error instead of a seamless and beautiful user experience.

This is where two design patterns, presets and defaults, can often be helpful. These patterns can help by reducing complexity and saving time and effort, but whether you can use them or not solely depends on the depth of your user research.

To understand why that’s the case, let’s look at a typical example of user presets: game settings.

Presets for quick configuration

Do I turn Vertical sync on or off?

If you’ve ever had trouble running a game, that’s probably one of the most common Google searches. It’s a minor graphics option that’s as clear as mud to even “Power Users” like hardcore gamers, but it can make a huge difference whether you can even play a game or not.

The settings menu of Rocket League. An arrow points to a checkbox labeled “Vertical Sync”, which is almost hidden among all of the other video options.
Whether or not you check “Vertical Sync” can have a significant impact on graphics (Rocket League)

But games aren’t designed for users to fiddle around with video options: they’re designed so users can pick them up and play.

This is why many games have adopted presets in their settings. Many users don’t know what “Vsync” or other video options are, but they can often figure out if their gaming platform can handle “High,” “Medium,” or “Low” graphics options.

So rather than having users understand complex terminology, games offer easy-to-understand presets that, upon being chosen, select many options at once.

The video menu of Rocket League. The Texture Detail dropdown is shown as “High Quality”, and another rectangle shows all of the checkboxes below that are affected as a result (such as high quality shaders, depth of field, lens flares, and more).
Changing the textural detail changes a lot of the checkboxes below (Rocket League menu)

It’s not just games that use presets: many companies offer guidance based on particular presets. For example, Turbotax uses a choice of presets to guide users to relevant tax sections.

A gif of Turbotax’s presets, where different options being selected (like “I have a Job” or “I started a family”) will load in different tax document selections.

However, designing with presets often requires a lot of user research: in many cases, one preset choice is the equivalent of selecting multiple options at once. So presets usually require a well-defined user persona and some objective measures to ensure that the correct options are selected.

Well-defined user personas help you understand the options and selections that those user groups need. For example, if you’re designing for “Joe Dunnings, Marketing Expert,” do you know what options or selections he’d typically choose?

This is where objective measures come in handy. Objective measures like “Graphics card performance” or “Tax document sections” help inform what options should be chosen for a preset, while the personas help define what should be chosen. While not strictly necessary, it can save a lot of user research in determining the choices a specific user group would select.

But what if you don’t have that type of information? In that case, you can use the more common time-saving design pattern: Defaults.

Default or prefilled options to save time

Defaults are a typical design pattern where the website makes choices instead of the users. Input fields are populated with what most users want to save time and effort.

The home page of shows booking defaults based on location, today’s date, the return date of the average trip, how many passengers, as well as things like roundtrip/one-way.
Defaults come pre-populated on’s booking option

The most common defaults tend to be dropdown menus and radio buttons. However, any input field can be populated depending on if you have a clear idea of what the majority of users want.

However, understanding what the majority of users want requires careful user research. This is because there are opportunities for harm and frustration. Some common mistakes include:

As a result, you need a clear understanding of your user through user research to pre-populate it in advance. After all, less than 5% of users change default settings.

Defaults and presets are powerful tools for user research

If you’re designing something complex, defaults and presets are some of the most powerful tools you can use to improve the user experience.

Users will likely have a high cognitive load while completing tasks, so the fewer decisions they need to make, the better. Using these patterns requires deep user research, as you are essentially deciding for your users.

However, if you understand your user well enough, you likely will save your user more headaches than you realize.

Kai Wong is a Senior UX Designer, Design Writer, and author of the Data and Design newsletter. His new book, Data-informed UX Design, explains small changes you can make regarding data to improve your UX Design process.

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