The Power of Defaults

January 27th, 2010

I tend to see two extremes whenever there are arguments about what should be the default (I’m speaking specifically of arguments on the Ubuntu Forums, but this could be applied to really anything in technology or anything in life in general).

One extreme is that defaults don’t matter at all. It’s not worth arguing about. Just put whatever as the default. Then people can just choose to change the default to something else if they don’t like the default. The other extreme is that defaults matter enough to have 500-post forum threads about arguing back and forth. Somewhere in the middle is some sanity.

Defaults matter. But defaults are only defaults. People can choose options other than the defaults.

Why do defaults matter? Here are some examples:

  • I love that on my wife’s Macbook Pro, you just press the function keys, and they do something right away (lower the volume, adjust the brightness). My netbook by default needs to have the blue Fn key pressed in combination with the function keys to get that behavior to happen. I can easily change that. But if I change it, it’s confusing for anyone else using my netbook, because the instructions on the physical keys themselves indicate the function keys are normal functions and that you need the Fn key in combination in order to do anything. In other words, whole products sometimes have fixed parts built around the assumption that defaults will go unchanged.
  • I use VLC for playing individual sound bits or videos. When I dug into the settings for VLC, I didn’t understand half of what that stuff is, and there were a lot of options to configure. Very confusing for a multimedia newbie like me. Good thing I didn’t have to configure all those settings. I just used the defaults. Sane defaults save the user from having to understand unnecessary minutiae.
  • As far as I can tell, every Linux user has a list of things she does immediately after a fresh installation. I usually change the wallpaper to a picture of my cat, replace Evolution with Thunderbird, add in some proprietary codecs, and delete the bottom Gnome panel. Sane defaults should make the sense for the most users. Even though I personally delete the bottom Gnome panel, the vast majority of Gnome users like to have both a top and bottom panel, so to have the top panel only wouldn’t make sense, because it would mean more people would have to take more time configuring things. If defaults are well-thought-out, less time is spent tinkering and adjusting and more time is spent using.
  • Linux live CDs can come in handy, especially if you need to help a Windows user recover deleted data. What happens in a default installation is the first impression that non-Linux user is going to have of Linux and may be the only impression she has. So if an ugly noise or splash screen appears, that’s the impression she’s going to get. It doesn’t matter if that noise or splash screen can be changed. Likewise, if you are using the live CD to show someone what Linux is like, you don’t want to have to “uninstall” and then “install” in the live session a whole bunch of software, especially if the computer you’re using has very little RAM.
  • And don’t forget that even though power users like to tinker and explore, most people just stick with defaults. 99% of Windows computers I see have the taskbar on the bottom, even though you can easily drag it to the top or the sides. 99% of Windows XP computers I see have the stupid blue theme, even though you can easily change to a silver or classic theme. Even though Firefox’s marketshare has skyrocketed in the past five years, Internet Explorer is still, globally the more-used browser over Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Safari. It being the default web browser in Windows probably had something to do with that.

Yes, if you have an absolutely unbearable default, many people will probably just ditch it anyway, but instead of thinking “I’m so glad I have the freedom to change this setting,” they’ll most likely be thinking “What a terrible default! Who thought of that? Now we’re all going to have to change this!”

Sometimes defaults can have ethical considerations, too. For example, making people have to opt out of sharing information with a company or third-party corporation “partner” is a bad default (people should always have to opt in for that sort of thing), because it means if people forget to change the defaults or don’t investigate all of their basic settings and advanced settings, they will end up sharing more than they intended to share.

So if I see a bad default in Ubuntu, I’m going to make a point to say it’s a bad default. Good defaults matter. I will not, however, spend hours of my time arguing the point back and forth. Some things are a deal… they may not be a big deal, but they are still a deal.

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