Is There Such a Thing as Being Too Customizable?

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Recently I was having a discussion with friends about how people on “The Walking Dead” TV show behave in a post apocalyptic world. Some say the chaos, lies, and sacrifices are acceptable when there are no rules. How does this relate to mobile device technology and customization you ask?

Well, we have Apple’s iOS operating system which takes on a very rigid and strict set of rules that are essentially determined by one man. Sometimes we don’t even know what the rules are. Applications can be denied publication for no apparent reason sometimes. The ability for users to customize things on iOS is very limited and strict as well. At first the only thing you could do was move icons around. At least nowadays you can change the background image, and organize app icons into folders but still the operating system is pretty strict and limited when it comes to customization freedom, but at least everything is simple and neatly arranged.

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When it comes to iOS, this is about as custom as you can get (without jailbreaking).

This type of strict ruling often can make people feel imprisoned by all of the rules. That’s where Android comes in. There are essentially no rules when it comes to Android. If you’re a user, a developer, a carrier, or a manufacturer, there is almost nothing you can’t do. It’s like a free-for-all, or a post-apocalyptic society. That sounds really attractive compared to Apple’s way.

That’s actually the reason MySpace became so popular. Originally the king of social networks was Friendster, but that started to become too restricted when it began growing too quickly. Friendster ended up limiting your friends list to only 500 people, and only allowing a small number of photos to be uploaded. People felt very confined, so MySpace was born to give everyone a much higher degree of freedom. You could do all sorts of crazy customizations with your social networking profile on that site! You could use any kind of HTML and Javascript hack to rearrange the layout, hide certain parts, add animated snowflakes, embed a ton of YouTube videos, animated GIFs, and photos. On MySpace there are no limits to what you can do. Android is like MySpace. Anything goes no matter if you’re a user, a manufacturer, or a carrier. You can put all sorts of animations in the backgrounds. You can do anything you want with apps and widgets and wallpapers and launchers and even the entire operating system’s code.

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It’s almost too easy to make a mess of Android’s design

The no-rules method of MySpace turned out to be a huge mess of confusion, ugliness, and frustrating usability. That’s where Facebook came in. Facebook has a few restrictions. You can’t do anything you want. You can’t stalk the people who are viewing your profile. You can’t really change the layout or cover your page with animations. Animated GIFs aren’t even supported. But you can customize it with your data. You have complete freedom over the number of photo albums, status updates, links, and videos that you can post… but you have a few restrictions that keep everything from getting out of control. That’s one reason why Facebook has become so much more popular than MySpace. It’s a perfect balance of freedom and structure.

We can also take this analogy to governments and societies as well. The monarchy style government can sometimes be too restrictive and people can get frustrated with their lack of freedom. Anarchy isn’t much fun in the long run since it’s way too easy for greed and evil to run rampant and ruin it for everyone else even during a zombie apocalypse. Democracy tends to be a really nice balance of freedom and structure.

Now getting back to the smartphone operating systems.

Windows Phone, is kind of like Facebook. Instead of widgets of all shapes/sizes/designs, program icons strewn all over your home screens, and background animations with all sorts of different themes… on Windows Phone you’re restricted to one grid of “tiles”. They are only allowed to be square or rectangular for the specific purpose of fitting together, looking like they belong there, and keeping things simple. This is the type of structure we need to keep things in line and sane. But we also need lots of freedom, and Windows Phone has that too. You can put anything you want on that start screen! You can pin programs, picture albums, bacon cheeseburger recipes, movies, musicians, news feeds, sport scores, weather radar maps, restaurant reservations, movie ticket bar codes, plane tickets… the possibilities are endless! You can fill that screen with as many or as few tiles as you want and put them in any order. Yet, because of the basic structure and design, no matter how much you customize that start screen with your content, it’s always going to look neat, organized, and consistent… and that’s a good thing. You’ve got the freedom to customize your content in a number of great ways, but you’ve got the structure to keep it from becoming a total mess.

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No matter how many cheeseburgers, bad movies, and pop-singers you put on your start screen, they still look like they belong.

Then there are the parts that customize themselves without you having to do anything. This is something that I find very unique and pleasant about Windows Phone. On other platforms I eventually get bored of the UI and at that point I have to consciously decide to change something and then manually re-arrange icons, install different widgets, change the background image, etc. I know it’s not a big deal, but it’s still something you have to do once in a while. With the old Windows Mobile (which was about as customizable as Android) I was always customizing. I created my own themes with different colors and imagery. Then I created media player skins and phone dialer designs to match using some programming and Photoshop. It was a lot of work. With Windows Phone, things customize themselves every so often so that you might never reach that point of being bored with the device. Pinned contacts and contact groups are always updating with new pictures posted to social networks and little status updates. The Pictures hub is always randomly scrolling through my favorite pictures and its interface background art changes randomly as well. The Bing app is never boring as it changes its background image to something completely different and absolutely gorgeous every day. The Music & Videos hub changes based on what you’ve listened to, and the Marketplace interface changes its beautiful background imagery in each section all the time. Not having to manually customize so many things that I might otherwise get bored with has actually given me an extra sense of freedom.

Now the real question is, how much customization is enough for you? Do you need complete freedom, a good balance of freedom and structure, or extreme simplicity?

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!