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The case for smart presets over customization features

Successful digital products enable users to reach their goals fast and effortlessly.
In this article, I’ll compare different UX strategies that align the user interface closer to user’s goals and workflows. I have a clear recommendation based on a recent user interface redesign case for a self-service terminal.

UI shortcuts for achieving goals faster

In software design, our key goal is to create interfaces that match users’ needs and workflows. The closer this match, the faster the interaction with the system to reach goals.

With more and heterogeneous user groups, designing this match becomes harder. You‘ve probably heard the saying: “You can’t make it right for everyone” before.

Hands turning a Rubix cube
Image by Olav Ahrens via Unsplash

I’ve been lucky to work on a project to redesign the user experience for (touch interface) ATMs for a major Austrian bank. With self-service terminals and ATMs, speed and ease of interaction count above anything else. Imagine being in a hurry, and other people queuing impatiently behind your back. Getting your money and leaving would be your top priority. Thus, making interactions as quick and easy as possible for a majority of users was our main goal in the project.

We were aiming to create a good overall information architecture first. Our team prioritized features based on usage statistics, customer impact and business value, in order to make the most important functions stand out. After all, the main navigation is the interface’s backbone: Offering direct, stable and unchanged access to the system’s features, regardless of individual presets or usage contexts.

Selecting functions from main navigation should always be the most reliable and predictable way of using a digital experience. But it comes at a price: it can never be the fastest way on an individual level, since it has to cater for the whole user base.

Here, shortcuts come into place: In addition to main navigation, we wanted to enable users to reach their most common goals faster. Two options stood out:

  • Let users customize the software to set individual shortcuts
  • Offer individual smart presets as shortcuts automatically to speed up user interactions

Since customization features were already in use with very poor usage results with the existing user interface, we saw huge opportunities in offering individual smart presets. Despite this situation, it was quite difficult for our team to persuade the bank into taking the extra mile and implement them – for the sake of higher adoptation rates and better user experience.

The problem for whom to design

As designers, we need to understand whom we are designing for. It is the only way to create effective solutions for people‘s needs. Designing a product for a large user base therefore needs to take into account the goals and behaviors of many people.

I like the comparison with Anthropometry (the measurement of the physical properties of the human body) for a better understanding of the problem. Furniture designers, architects and fashion designers are all in the business of user centered design. They need to create useable things and buildings for humans. Anthropometry comes up with standards for measurements, based on average human measurements for certain regions and/or demographics.

When processing this data for creating designs, there are three basic choices:

  • Design for average
  • Design for adjustability
  • Design for extremes

Designing for extremes only makes sense when creating products for a highly specialized, small target group with special needs. Designing for the average, on the other hand, is the key design philosophy when creating information architecture and presets for anonymous users. We want it to meet the needs of the (numerous) average users.

Designing for adjustability is all about offering ways to adjust the product to users’ very own needs and preferences. Combined with a good base design, this option sounds like the ideal design choice for any product.

But there‘s a problem with it.

Users don’t change settings

Customizing settings works good for people with technical backgrounds. Developers, designers or other people used to customize their tools will get along with it nicely.

Other people: not so much.

In a small experiment, Jared Spool analyzed a big amount of settings files from Microsoft Word, that a large group of users had sent him. He found out that only less than 5% of people actually changed any setting at all (of about 150+ possible settings to alter). So, more than 95% of users didn‘t change any setting. This is even more remarkable considering that Microsoft Word had the „Autosave“ feature turned off by default back then. More than 95% of users risked losing their work in Microsoft Word every day, even though the could have just altered this basic setting.

Research backs the fact that ordinary users rarely change settings.

“Despite its benefits, many users don’t avail themselves of customization features. Users exhibit a strong bias toward simply getting things done on a website, rather than spending time fiddling with preference settings.”

Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group on customization of UIs and products

In our ATM redesign project for the bank, we also encountered this fact.

Features that require configuration often are not obvious enough

The bank was already trying to get more people to use shortcuts for withdrawing their preferred amount of money. However, the implemented design solution required configuration and confirmation by users. By default, no value was set and the preset functionality was inactive. After selecting a certain amount of money, users had the possibility to save this amount as a „personal favorite amount“ for the next transaction. Once set, the desired amount could be withdrawn by just one click.

Screenshot of the ATM UI before the redesign. Contrary to our smart preset feature, the shortcut amount needed to be configured manually. (c) s IT Solutions
Before the redesign: Customers needed to manually confirm their preferred withdrawal amount in order to use the shortcut feature. (© s IT Solutions)

In only about 1,7% of transactions, customers would use the feature, even though it had been implemented for quite a while.

To me, this is an excellent example of how people don‘t change default settings. It’s quite understandable, given the specific environment: With so little time, so much distraction and constraints as with using a public self service terminal, people just want their job to get done and not fiddle around with settings.

We wanted to improve our value proposition to customers and offer the right suggestion at the right time – without the need to configure any of the presets by themselves.

Our success story: Tailored, personalized smart presets

Presets offer people a shortcut to selecting items or values that will probably meet their needs (since they are based on the needs of average users). Smart presets on the other hand, are based on individual data.

In an upfront experiment, we interviewed a group of bank customers to learn more about their personal ATM experiences and withdrawal behaviors.

The research proofed our hypothesis: Most people usually withdraw the same amount of money and only change this behavior on special occasions. Backed by this research, we started another round of expirements together with the bank: Instead of offering people to set their preferred amount of money manually, we did it for them.

A group of 800 customers was chosen randomly, for whom we preset the withdrawal amount based on their latest individual withdrawal history. We then examined how many of these people used the preset to withdraw their favorite amount quickly:

Our small experiment worked. A considerably bigger group of people used the pre-populated amount.

After evaluating this „test balloon“ and getting management pay-in, we moved on to automate the process of presetting values based on user behavior.

Smart presets to cover a wide range of features dynamically

In fact, the technical team came up with realtime individual analysis of user behavior, to offer shortcuts to preferred withdrawal amounts for every single customer.

Screenshot of the ATM UI after the redesign, showing the start screen. The highlight shows an example for our smart preset feature, offering customers to withdraw € 100,00 from their account with just one tap. (c) dmcgroup & s IT Solutions
After the redesign: Personalized smart presets enable customers to select their most used actions from the start screen with just one tap. (© dmcgroup | s IT Solutions)

The numbers proofed us right. The usage of the feature has been continually improving since then. Right from the start, the number of transactions using one of the smart presets almost quadrupled. With time passing since the rollout, the numbers increased even more.

The feature was even scaled to not only cover withdrawal amounts but to reflect the individual usage behavior covering other features like money transfers or cash deposits. Whatever customers regularly do, will show up as one of their smart presets sooner or later.

The bank chose to do the hard work behind the scenes, to deliver „magic“ to their customers: The right personalized action at the right time.

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