Preserving Preferences

One of the more popular posts that I wrote in July was “Designed Deterioration,” in which I observed that digital hardware is rarely intended to get more beautiful as it gets older.

Governed mostly by the modern business principle of planned obsolescence, today’s hardware products are meant to get scrapped and replaced when they age beyond the near future. By contrast, older hardware goods — like the cast iron skillet I mentioned in my original post — often seem to have been designed with their eventual deterioration in mind. As they get older and become more heavily used, they get better.

That post might have led many to believe that what I’m advocating is that digital products should all be developed with designed deterioration in mind. While I wouldn’t object to that, I wouldn’t expect it to happen any time soon. By now, planned obsolescence is too strongly rooted a concept to allow for that.

I also happen to think there’s a lot to be said for designing for the current moment, designing something that addresses today’s values without feeling the pressure to create something that will last for all time. Which is to say that I have a bias towards what I consider to be ‘timeless’ design, for sure, but I also believe that our craft and our culture don’t progress when everything tries to appear timeless.

There’s one more part of this discussion I want to bring to light. So far, I’ve been harping on hardware and industrial design. But my original thought, when I sat down to write that post, was that designed deterioration seems like an idea that software could benefit from, too.

Just Like Starting Over… and Over, and Over

For instance: I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop, for better or worse, since the early 1990s. And yet for every new computer that I sit down in front of, for every time I start off with a freshly installed operating system, or for every new version of Photoshop that I install, it’s like starting with a brand new copy of the program. Each time, all of the settings for Photoshop’s myriad of tools are reverted to their defaults again, as if I had never touched the program before.

Using the hardware paradigm again, you could say that it’s a good thing that it’s so easy to start over from scratch with software, that it’s a little like getting, say, a new iPod at regular intervals. But is it? To me, it’s more like every time you cook in a different kitchen, you get a brand new, unused cast-iron skillet that you must then season all over again — not so much starting fresh as it is starting back at square one.

In fact, to go back to the iPod model: buying a second or even a third iPod for yourself isn’t at all like buying the first one. That’s because Apple was smart about how it treats user preferences: rather than storing them in the hardware, they store them (at least partially) in the software — in iTunes. Your most frequently played and highest rated songs, your custom playlists, your volume adjustment settings — they&#8217re all stored in software, where they can most easily be transferred from one hardware device to another.

That’s only part of the solution, though. The problem is that Apple, like Adobe or just about any other software publisher, doesn’t do a particularly outstanding job of helping users preserve their preferences. And that’s the core of what I’m talking about here: preferences are a terrible thing to waste.

Disposable Preferences

One of the cornerstones of fixing problems on a Macintosh — even in the pre-Mac OS X days — is simply throwing away your preferences. Drag them to the trash, launch the program again, and chances are good that your problems will be resolved. Think for a minute though, about how irresponsible a programming decision this is. If you define a preference as a settings modification initiated by the user, then trashing these files as a troubleshooting strategy seems fundamentally disrespectful of the the time that users spend customizing their software.

To be fair, Mac OS X stores many of the settings previously lumped into preference files inside the user’s Application Support folder, which is usually excluded from disposal during the course of troubleshooting. That goes some distance towards resolving the problem, but it still places no overt priority on preserving preferences. There’s no mechanism to back them up, to transfer them, to get all of your preferences from one machine to the next unless you’re willing to devote considerable expertise, time and/or a software add-on of some sort.

In our more or less fully networked age, why can’t we store these preferences online? Some tools, like Google’s Browser Sync plug-in for Firefox do this for the fraction of a user’s customization data that is browser-related. Here again it’s necessary to turn to Apple’s continually deficient .Mac service as an ideal platform for just purpose — but it simply doesn’t address the issue at all. And I’m not holding my breath that it will.

To me, this kind of data is about more than convenience. Rather, it seems to be a core, missing element of software user experience; there are applications that I’m heavily reliant on, but there are few that I’m deeply fond of the way I’m fond of physical objects that incorporate the principles of designed deterioration.

Elevating preferences preservation to another level would be a meaningful first step towards that kind of deeper bond between users and software. The more that software reflects your priorities as a user, the more you’ll like it, and therefore the more unlikely you will be to switch to a competing application. And, to be clear, reflecting your priorities doesn’t mean enabling endless and arcane points of customization (e.g., Microsoft Outlook); it means recognizing the value of the customizations you’ve made, even if they’re from a limited array of options. You should only ever have to set up Photoshop once; the rest of the time you should be using it to get your work done — and liking it.

  1. Planned deterioration works in this way: I have an old g4 mac which I hadn’t fired up in several years until about a month ago. I saw all of my old files — my old desktop — in the same condition I had left them in 2002. It was like some sort of time warp, and kind of cool. I was able to zip into a couple of carbonized OS 9 apps and use them just as I had several years ago. Looking through the machine, I found that for all the great things I do on my current machine(s), there was very little I couldn’t do then in Photoshop 6 and Final Cut Pro 3. Moreover, for most users, the current version of Microsoft Word or Firefox would serve admirably over a much greater span of time than we allow ourselves to believe. In short, as with skillets, the seasoned object, for all its foibles, managed to retain much more value than I had imagined. Further, maybe it’s our predilection for new in all things digital that causes us more headaches than we need. (clap your hands and say iPhone).

  2. I know just what you mean about OS X and preferences. I became especially aware of two trouble areas recently, upon getting a new laptop. First, Migration Assistant froze mid-transfer three times (no error given, though; just inactivity and an unchanging estimated time of completion). I ended up moving everything over by hand, which wasted nearly a day. And I’ve been tracking down passwords for the last week because my Keychain couldn’t be imported (for some unexplained reason).

    I feel like the Apple philosophy is sometimes to burn the barn and move on. It’s as much blessing as it is a curse, though: OS X was a success because it abandoned OS 9 and completely reinvented the Mac OS, instead of stubbornly clinging to and becoming bloated by supporting everything that came before (like certain other operating systems). Then again, OS X was a fix to software that was, in many ways, broken… is may be a bad example.

  3. I just went back and read the “Designed Deterioration” post again, that post and this one made me think about the how many digital devices have kind of an obsolescence designed into them. Or at least the rapid rate of developing technology makes these older devices appear obsolete although, as in the old G4 that Raafi mentions in a comment above, they are still perfectly usable.

    I think mobile phones are the biggest culprit for this, manufacturers *could* bring out software updates that enhance and improve their capabilities but they seldom do. Mobile OS’s like Symbian and WinMobile are at least update-able but how many manufacturers actively bring out updates? The odd bug fix firmware release but seldom significant changes.

    In one respect this is why the iPhone is different than past cell phones, Apple are actively enhancing the features of the iPhone (financially they are accounting the revenue from iPhone sales as a subscription so that they can do just that). Apple can make the iPhone better in many ways over a few years, limited by hardware issues perhaps but they can and will make it better.

    It concerns me that so many digital devices, phones in particular are left obsolete fast, and become part of a growing amount of digital waste. It used to be that people bought TVs, appliances that would last for a decade or even more, that seems far rarer today then ever.

    Sorry, bit of a longish comment and perhaps slightly off the topic of your post!

  4. We run Mac OS X Server in our lab and use network home accounts, largely for the reasons you describe: Users’ preferences — their entire home environment — follow them throughout the lab. And it’s a thing of beauty. That said, it would be challenging to implement something like that for individual home users. Certainly not impossible, but challenging nonetheless.

  5. I love the fact that Thunderbird keeps my preferences every time I have to format my computer (roughly annually). It’s the only program I can start using normally immediately after the new OS is installed. The OS itself I have to go to every preference dialog box I can recall and set up like I want again (and I usually set up a lot of stuff).

  6. The purpose of planned obsolescence is obviously to keep the economy moving. Unfortunately it adds to our trash piles. And it’s inevitable that tech hardware will be useless in a matter of time because we will always find a better way to do something. The only workable option is to make the stuff more easily recyclable.

  7. Planned obsolescence, to me looks more like a luxury at the highest level of design- for the average UI designer its what comes naturally and its naturally stuck in this moment, whats current. Looking from a fantastic vantage point as an XHTML slicing service, I can see the average designer creating only perishable work- Without too much deliberation.For this majority, the “scars of a lifetime” type preference-storage hardly seems important- A simple majority/economic force driving software design.
    Maybe we should have timeless/NOW variations of PS.

  8. This is one of the things I love about the “Archive & Install” installation option for Mac OS X: you can choose to preserve all previous preferences while having everything else reinstalled. It’s great! I’ve also had some very positive experiences with Migration Assistant, unlike Matt above.

    Preference syncing is definitely something I’ve wanted for quite some time. Hope we see something like it soon.

  9. Until a couple of years ago, my parents were still occasionally using a Mac SE (from 1989, when I was 3) for word processing. In many ways it is better for the job than current-generation machines.

    Ћ MS Word 4.0 is in my view a much better product than Word 200x: it does exactly what it needs to do; it’s interface is straight-forward and discoverable; it does none of the useless automatic cleverer-than-the-author corrections that recent versions insist on; its preferences are simple to understand, and changing a setting doesn’t take scanning through 20 tabs.
    Ћ The Mac Finder of System 6 days was much more intuitive, elegant, and straight-forward than the current Finder. Each folder is mapped 1—1 with a window, and the System 6 Finder remembers user preferences beautifully: every folder stays exactly where you put it.
    Ћ The keyboards on old desktop Macs are worlds better than more recent ones. The ADB keyboard on the Mac SE is one of the last ones before they started making the monstrous AEKs. So the switches are about the same, but the arrow keys are in a row instead of an inverted-T, and there are no home/end/F1—F2 etc. keys. The keyboard is a joy to type on—vastly better than the atrociously-mushy Apple Pro Keyboards.
    Ћ What modern game can beat Dark Castle, Lode Runner, and Crystal Raider? No contest there. 😉

    Admittedly, there’s a lot that recent machines do that I couldn’t imagine life without at this point. But with that complexity has come a decreasing overall polish. Computers and operating systems have become too complex for a single vision to mold them into the same seamless experience that was possible two decades ago. Which is unfortunate, because each minor annoyance decreases that sense of wonder.

  10. I think a lot of it has to do with the speed of progress in digital devices and software. The cast iron skillet I buy today isn’t appreciably different, if at all, from the cast iron skillet I bought ten years ago. In contrast, I suppose Photoshop 9 is vastly different under the hood compared to Photoshop 4. Although I agree that user preferences should ideally be ported over to a newer version of software upon installation and setup, I assume this is something easier said than done.

    Or, perhaps they just think users would rather start over from scratch. I’ve been using Macs for the past four years, and I still catch myself in the “MS Windows habit” of installing and setting up software from Square One, rather than just copying over a plist file from a previous installation on another computer.

  11. Not too keen on the DD concept, as it sounds too destructive. The skillet, like Photoshop, gains a patina of usability that’s all too easily scrubbed clean by a reinstall or a steel-wool-Nazi flatmate. Having to reconfigure stuff over and over again – hello, myth of Sisyphus.

  12. I wish Windows allowed you to say, “Yes, I know already” to all its pestering dialog boxes. As a matter of course we reinstall the designers’ machines annually, a process that is essentially fairly quick and efficient to do. However, the ‘annoyances’ Windows throws up “Windows can do this and that when you do the other”, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”, “Is this the thing that you want to happen whenever you do that?” have to be dealt with only as they occur. What I want is a big STFU button that I can hit right after a reinstall that deals with all of it. *That’s* the kind of thing I need for my settings.

    Oh, and a button that removes the tooltip functionality from Windows completely. They’re like flies buzzing round your mouse…

    For the Mac, I’m glad to say I’ve never had to worry about that.

  13. While I think the threads about the continued usability of older equipment are a bit off Khoi’s point, there is something about the ease with which I can take deprecated hardware from my office and throw Linux on it to very quickly create fully workable systems. I think of this both as an extension of the tangent I mention, but also as a pointer to working OS- and application-level preference accretion and migration. To wit: for all manner of preferences a sysadmin or user might make to a Linux system, a /home directory stored on a separate partition preserves them during upgrade or fresh install; but further, there is a history of sharing of those preferences, such is the import they received as the system was being designed. For any modifications I might want to make to screen, X, conky, syslogd, and other critical and not-so-critical pieces of my system, there are usually examples readily downloaded from the internet.

    Imagine a day when you application and system preferences are simple, human-readable, portable, sharable text/XML files: not only could you back up and restore your Photoshop preferences easily, you could share them and learn from others’ preferences as well. It would seem to be an easy thing to do, though, as with most things about which that can be said, it might not be quite so.

  14. “What I want is a big STFU button that I can hit right after a reinstall that deals with all of it. *That’s* the kind of thing I need for my settings.”


    Every time I’m unfortunate enough to use a windows machine, or if it forgets my settings I have to ok absolutely everything again, YES I know I’m sending data over the internet

  15. While preference preservation isn’t ideal, I think that with the ‘Migration’ feature offered by OS X and the possibility to copy your Library folder over from another hard drive / account, things aren’t as bad as you present them on the Mac.

    In addition, applications that use the defaults system, allow very specific changes to their preferences to be made by external tools. In fact, my experience is that the more user-friendly developers will help you out with a command to delete the one specific setting in your preference file that keeps things from working rather than asking you to get rid of the whole file and thus your complete information.

    I’m not saying things are perfect, but with modern Mac software I think that losing preference data is significantly less likely than it was in the past or on other platforms. What frequently is missing, though, is the awareness of users for the value of those files. People may not know about those folders within their Library folder but not taking them with you when you change computers will hurt.

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