Is it possible to make a "good" options dialog?

by berry120   Last Updated January 31, 2018 08:16 AM

One thing I'm struggling with, and have yet to see an example I'm happy with, is an options dialog (in a desktop app, if that makes any difference.) I'm having difficulties with my own, but they all seem to have the same problems. To take a more generic example:

Microsoft Word options dialog

There's a few common problems that I see:

  • Discoverability is poor; even when grouping into categories. The most common method of finding something in an options dialog seems to be Googling what to click on!
  • Grouping is poor - the "Advanced" tab seems to be a huge culmination of "I don't know where this goes".
  • Explanation of individual functionality is poor in many cases, as it would require a lengthy explanation that doesn't fit on the label.
  • Not to do with the above screenshot, but they're not even named or launched consistently. Years ago, it always seemed to be Tools -> Options. These days it seems it's either under the "Tools", "File" or "Edit" menus for those apps that still use traditional menus, and could be called "Options", "Preferences", "Settings", or anything else vaguely relevant.

Some of the better "options" screens I've seen are those in browsers; Chrome for example allows you to search, which arguably improves the discoverability:

Chrome options

However, even in this case you have to search for the exact phrase or word that you're after. Searching for "Do not track" for example will get you the option to send a "Do not track" request. Searching for "disable tracking" will leave you empty-handed.

The solutions that I can think of aren't really feasible:

  • Slim down the options dialog and put only the most common options there (it always starts small, but many of the options present are there at user request!)
  • Do without the options dialog and find other places to put customisation, such as a toolbar or ribbon (anecdotal, but I've found this just makes it even more annoying to find what you need);
  • Use help icons for longer explanations of option functionality (surely no-one would actually use them?)
  • Create more categories to get rid of an "Advanced" or "General" category (then you just end up with a whole heap of categories you can't really navigate, some of which only have one option in them.)

Are there any good examples that I'm missing, any known solutions to these problems, or any relevant literature in the field for creating an options dialog that doesn't completely suck?

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