Default settings and ecological impact

Do application settings reflect choices made by the user or the priorities of the developer? This questions comes up again and again, as the settings are linked to yet another unexpected negative outcome. The latest example is from, courtesy of Good magazine.

Almost any interesting bit of software comes with a set of switches and knobs. The more complex the software, the more switches to fiddle typically. Sometimes the developers in a good-intentioned attempt to conquer the complexity reduce it to a series of multiple choice questions. How secure would you like that router? Low/medium/high. More likely there is an escape hatch left open for the tinkers, a custom or advanced option hiding in the UI that unlocks the full array of all possible configurations, to create the software equivalent of an extra-hot, 2% double-shot half-decaf mocha.

Unlike the whimsical Starbucks creations, application settings can have a wider reaching effects then the next caffeine buzz. Power settings are the obvious example: machines equipped with power management features that can either slow-down the CPU speed or hibernate altogether in response to low utilization can cut down on energy consumption. ChangeTheMargins picks a different battle; the choice of margins in Microsoft Word. Set to 1.25″ by default for left-right, the website argues for cutting that generous allotment of white-space down to three-quarters of an inch instead. There are detailed figures for exactly how much in paper, trees and dollars that will save.

All good advice. As for the interesting piece: the author is calling on Microsoft to set the defaults to 0.75″ in Office out-of-the-box. This raises an interesting question the extent that the current wasteful use of paper can be blamed on the developer and to what extent on the customers using that software. (Not to diminish the influence of middle-man along the way: the OEMs who install and configure that software on brand-new machines where it is bundled, the enterprise IT departments responsible for rolling-out Office to 10K desktops etc. In fact the website does have a stated goal for converting 5 corporations to sanction the narrower margins.) The issue of default can become a major headache to the vendor for three reasons:

  • There are too many conflicting interests– including occasionally that of the vendor itself– and out-of-the-box settings must strike a balance that can not please everyone
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests some fraction of users will not change settings. Especially anything marked “advanced” or “custom.” This makes it very hard to take the position that settings reflect user choice as opposed to user complacency. (This fact was impressed on the blogger when he worked on the P3P privacy settings for Internet Explorer 6.)
  • Most applications must ship with some defaults at least. For many years UI designers hated the idea of forcing a decision on the user at first-run or installation time, because it was disruptive to their Platonic ideal of user-friendly software. They pointed out, quite correctly, that such a question materializing out-of-context, when the user is already occupied with a different primary would simply be perceived as a distraction, leaving everyone looking for the “OK” button to make it go away. Without any basis for weighing the options the user might as well flip a coin. Fortunately UI designers have become more pragmatic about this over time, especially in the context of security. IE6 XP SP2 “Information Bar” and more recently in IE7 phishing filter do in fact prompt the user to make a decision the first time when the choice would have a material impact.

Yes, the default width of margins matter. But to put this in perspective: it matters much less than other options. Printing double-sided can cut down paper waste by 50%. What about configuring printers to default to double-side? Not that easy it turns out because most of them can not do auto-duplexing. This blogger cared enough about the functionality to find one that could, but there were few viable alternative for home-office use: Brother DL-5250DN handily won out. Manually printing double-sided is very slow and often impractical for large documents because the secondary feed tray can not accommodate very many sheets at once. But the high-end multipurpose scanner/fax/color-laser printer/photocopier machines the size of washer machines found in large enterprises can and ought to be configured to default to double-sided and not waste paper printing out cover pages to distinguish the jobs.

Finally there is the question of trade offs: using smaller fonts, using single-spacing instead of double-spacing or printing two pages on one side (50% magnification) can all cut down on paper wasted, but the expense of readability. One reason conservation efforts have not resonated with the American public in the past is that they evokes images of huddling together in the cold –reduce heating to curb carbon emissions– in a dimly-lit space whit with pale glow of florescent lights– more efficient than incandescent– after taking a cold shower. At some point the quality of the printed document may not meet the strict standards used for academic or legal correspondence for example. That brings us to the most promising solution: minimizing the need to convert electronic documents into hard-copy.


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