Let Me Write Myself a Note

I want to be able to leave comments against the settings in a GUI, like I am accustomed to doing in a plain text configuration file.

When I install a WordPress plug-in, I want to leave a note reminding myself why the default behaviour wasn’t good enough, and why I chose that plug-in rather than another one. When I add a security exception in Firefox I want to leave a note reminding myself whether I also reported the problem.

When software configuration settings are given in a plain text file, it is in most cases taken for granted that the user may include comments. GUIs almost never allow this. Why? I suppose it is a symptom of over-simplification. The GUI designers supposed that the GUI makes everything so simple and obvious that there is no need for the user to add notes. But that is not so. The first time I install a plug-in or change a setting, the purpose tends to be obvious. The problem begins when I have twenty different plug-ins, some with overlapping functionality, some enabled and some disabled. In other words, once I am properly and fully using the software.

I think configuration GUIs should let us include comments.

One comment per configuration item, plus one comment per “page” or section, would be about right. The comment fields should not be obtrusive, perhaps just a little icon indicating when a comment is present, and only expanding it when the relevant item/page/section is selected.

It might be tempting to assume this is something only needed by users of complex or “technical” software. However I think that would be a mistake. Examples of use by novices:

The reason why I set this is in step 3 of the foobling tutorial at http://example.com/tutorial

or, the techie friend tweaks something and leaves a note,

Remember I turned this off for you just to stop the fooble distracting you… You can turn it on again if you want to use the fooble.

It might also be tempting to assume that many settings are just user preferences, such as whether Firefox should show or hide the tabs bar when only one tab is open, and think that in such cases there is no real need for an explanatory comment. While in many instances it will be true that the user just made an isolated choice, again I think it is a mistake to disallow comments. For example, in this case I might write,

Show the tabs bar, although I’d really prefer to hide it, because Firefox otherwise doesn’t show the page loading spinner and I really want to see that.

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