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Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

Akendi Alumnus

Understanding Defaults and Notifications (or, why I hate my dishwasher)

A few nights ago I was awoken by the sound of a loud buzzer. The noise had come from the kitchen. Blearily I debated getting out of bed before realizing that it must be the new dishwasher. I had turned it on for the first time before going to bed. With a grumble of annoyance, I rolled over to go back to sleep.

My peace did not last long though before another loud buzzing noise sounded from the kitchen. This time I stormed into the room, pulled open the dishwasher, and jammed the off button. I didn’t notice that my dishes had been beautifully cleaned to a shining splendour. I was mad.

Defaults are incredibly powerful tools for guiding new users, speeding up system usage, and influencing responses with the power of suggestion. Notifications can provide updates about system status to users. But, beware, if not used carefully, these can be some of the quickest ways to annoy your users.

So, with that in mind, let’s head back to the crime scene. There were two important areas where this dishwasher experience went wrong: defaults and notifications. In part one of this two-part series we’ll be talking about default guidelines and the problems with the incorrect use of defaults, then, in part two, we’ll be covering notifications and things to keep in mind while creating them.

The designers of this new dishwasher decided to put in a default setting so that the machine would automatically buzz loudly five times after the dishwashing was complete and then continue to do this for an hour.

Sounds a bit extreme for a default, doesn’t it?

And that’s exactly it; this dishwasher is violating everything a default should be. Defaults should be a representation of whatever the majority of your users are going to want.

Choosing the wrong default can range from a minor annoyance to something that can seriously aggravate your user, potentially to the point of abandonment. How bad setting the wrong default can be depends on how easy recovery is for the user. Having a checkbox pre-selected with ‘debit’ when most of your customers use credit cards, is an example of a bad default with an easy recovery. All the user has to do is click on ‘credit’ in order to fix the problem and your user likely won’t be too upset about having to do this. My dishwasher, on the other hand, was another story.

After waking up the next morning, I decided to deal with my dishwasher problem. I popped the dishwasher open, looking for a button or switch to turn the buzzer off. Nothing. I checked along the sides. Still nothing. Well, that was it then, it was time to bust out the manual. I, fortunately, had decided to keep it, and without further ado, flipped to the index.

I found a section called “Additional Options – Buzzer”. Flipping to the section revealed a short description of the default settings and that the buzzer, to my delight, can be turned off. Following this description was a series of instructions. The instructions really speak for themselves:

  • Open the door
  • Turn the dishwasher off with ‘¢’.
  • Press the “Program” button and at the same time turn the dishwasher on with ‘|’.
  • Hold the program button until the “Rinse & Hold” program indicator comes on.

If it does not come on, start over.

  • Press the “Program” button four times.

– The “Intake / Drain” indicator flashes four times in intervals.

-The setting can be recognized by the flashing of the “SaniWash” indicator:

– flashing: buzzer is activated

– not lit up: buzzer is deactivated

  • To change the setting press the “Program” button for at least one second, until the “Intake / Drain” indicator lights up.
  • Press the “Program” button

The setting is saved.

  • Turn the dishwasher off with ‘¢’.


My first thought is that the makers of this dishwasher must really hate people who don’t remove their clean dishes immediately. After completing that I’m still not even sure if I can only do the last few steps or if I must complete them all, in order to turn the buzzer off as the instructions were not separated on the page. It was, however, at this precise moment that I decided that I hated my dishwasher. The recovery from the bad default was so absurdly complicated that any hope I had for still thinking this was a well-designed appliance were thrown out the window.

You don’t want this to happen to your product.

The dishwasher manufactures might have spent months, years even, perfecting the functioning of the dishwasher so that the stream of water would hit the dishes just right so that they will be perfectly clean. If only they had invested a little more time into their user interface and not treated it as an afterthought then maybe they would have had a truly exceptional product.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? That you don’t have to be doomed to create bad defaults. All you have to do is invent a little bit of time and try and keep in mind the three guidelines below. Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding bad designs and making a product that will delight your users

Your default should be what the majority of your users will want

And this should be based on real data from real users.

Conduct research to find out how your product fits into people’s lives. Don’t just ask them what they want, find out how to best fulfil their goals and motivations and build your defaults around that.

Focus your defaults so that tasks will be the easiest to complete for the users who make up the majority. Design your use flows for the most common situation and make sure that following these flows is quick and easy.

It should be possible to change the default relatively easily

Even if you make a good well-researched default, there are going to be a few people who want something else. Now, you don’t need to accommodate all of these wants into your product, in fact, you shouldn’t, but there are times when alternatives to the default are important to provide.

What makes an alternative important to provide? The number of your users who want it.

Ignore fringe cases because you can get caught up in those for while and just focus on the core needs of the largest chunks of your users. Do most users want to be asked for a password on login but about a third don’t? Make the password default, but allow users to easily discover that they can turn this off.

After you have created a few default alternatives that you think users will be able to easily switch to, test it with some of your users. It is important to validate that something you think will be easy is, in fact, easy for the people you are designing for.

Defaults should not alienate your users

There are some cases where defaulting to the most common situation is not the best idea. These are situations where the default might alienate some of your users.

Usually, the best way to solve this problem is by deciding if it is really necessary to have this default or if you can remove it entirely. There seem to be a number of questions that appear to be considered default questions to ask users. Every time I sign up for a service, it seems I am asked my gender. This is a question where a default could potentially alienate some users. Instead of deciding if you should default to female if most of the users of your website are female, it is better to decide if this information is even needed.

Unless you have a very valid reason to ask these questions, don’t ask users to provide information that they may be unwilling to share, especially when they perceive no benefit to providing this information.

However, if you decide that this potentially alienating feature is needed, consider not using a default. Allow users their own choice of options or a selection of inclusive possibilities and don’t put a default in to suggest what to choose.

Stay tuned for next time when we will discuss the notification aspect of this design and how the dishwasher designers (and you!) can use a few guidelines to improve your notifications.

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.