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I am developing two interfaces for my product that will allow users to customize a booking widget that they place on their sites. One is for choosing colors for the widget elements. The other for is designing the form their customers will fill in.

My mindset is users prefer ease of use over customisability. I have debated this but some people on the team say just let them change whatever they want.

For the color picking I want to offer preset themes and have limited if any custom choices.

For the form builder, the app needs name and email. I want to make that immutable and not even movable. I don't think name and email should be anywhere but on the top. For my customer's customers' sakes. Like this:

Sample form generator

Again, there is debate in the team that they should be able to do whatever they want. I can't imagine why name should be the last form field on the list but maybe I am not imaginative enough

So... Maximum permissiveness or UX team knows best?

Anyone have any experience where they have offered too much? Or offered limited choices only to have users wanting more?

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I think you should narrow the scope of your question down to just the form issue. "customize everything" and the colors thing make it harder to get what you're asking until you read the bit about the form. –  Ben Brocka Jan 28 '12 at 20:34
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6 Answers

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The problem with maximum permissiveness, as you point out, is that users can then do things which are really poor, and that will, to an extent, reflect back on you.

As a rule, letting user customise is a really good thing to do, however, this is not users, this is clients. There is a difference, because a user will make things the way they are happy with FOR THEMSELVES, whereas a client will do this for all users. The chances are that their style will not be suitable for all of the users.

Providing a set of templates that are broadly OK from a UX perspective should give the clients a sense of flexibility, but ensure that the users have something usable. Win win, IMO.

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Forms are a tricky beast, and can be dangerous in the wrong hands. We use Google Docs within our company, and the amount of internal forms that get sent around with checkboxes where there should be radio buttons and vice-versa. I would be very cautious about giving too much control to the untrained user.

The approach I would take is to discuss with your team and potential end-users, the types of questions that would generally need to be answered. I would then just have a set of these optional questions listed that can be enabled by using a boolean checkbox. This way, the wording of the labels etc. are all carefully written and crafted by a professional (you). Choice is given, but it is not a free-for-all.

Locking down the mandatory fields is great, and good on you for doing that.

Some observations of your wireframe: I realise this is likely work in progress, but as you have presented a mockup, I will provide my honest opinion. I am not a fan of asterisks to mark a field as mandatory. They have no contextual or semantic meaning, and on the mockup you haven’t introduced what the asterisk signifies. I am much more akin to Luke Wroblewski’s approach to handling this with an intro message.

All fields are mandatory unless stated as optional.

Now, I know you are giving the users the option to set whether a field is mandatory or not, so you could set some logic so that if more optional fields are set than mandatory, the message changes accordingly. Then the fields that are opposite to the message will have ‘optional’ or ‘mandatory’ in parentheses after the label.

Lastly, consider carefully whether having the labels inside the text-fields is the best approach. If the form has the potential to have a number of fields, increasing its complexity, you would probably improve the usability by placing the labels outside of the text-fields. A rough guide: labels on top of fields are for known information and speedy entering with linear eye-trail, left-aligned labels are for uncomplicated but unknown info that we need the user to think about, right-aligned labels can be jarring on the eye but are good for slowing the user down and really making them think about the information they are entering.

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I completely appreciate your critique WIP and I put it out there in hopes of some feedback. My final design will have the fixed ones text with perhaps a whiff of border to indicate they will be inputs. The changeable ones will be drop downs, when clicked indicate the possible choices (from the contact fields). The layout indicates HOW the form will look but not emaulate it. Here is an example: content.screencast.com/users/Itumac/folders/Jing/media/… I took out the asterixes and its much improved. Thank you for the feedback. –  Itumac Jan 26 '12 at 23:16
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The short answer:

Your approach is right.

The long one:

Where you know what's best (like putting the name/email on top) - don't let your customers choose. If I understand who your customers are, they're more likely to harm the experience than improve it by changing fields, either by accident or by making wrong choices.

Branding customization is important, but again - the 'webmasters' that will use it are probably not experienced with matching color tones. So I agree with the themes approach. I would go with ~15 to get matching hues for your customer, including few neutral ones (white, gray, black...)

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Provide your users with logical flexibility.

E.g. let them decide:

  • Whether for selection they want list boxes (more options visible at once) or combo boxes (take up less room)
  • If they want first name and last name side by side or under each other
  • Which theme to use (black on white, white on black, others or custom)
  • Custom is important for matching the hosting site's theme, however, don't let them choose foreground colors with low contrast relative to background
  • Make all mandatory fields mandatory, but, if possible, let your users add their own fields and set additional fields as mandatory - they may make sense to them
  • If your users have fields that they can translate to name and email (e.g. username, order number or etc) then perhaps you could let them hide those mandatory fields
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As far as the color choices are concerned: make a limited number of preset themes but then allow people to change the individual colors via a color chooser. This way you'll help them with the color choice, while still leaving open all possibilities.

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I think the best option in this case is to provide mockups of two possible scenarios and highlight them to the client while elaborating on why you feel the design should lean towards your choices .Eventually your client is going to use the application,they should feel comfortable with it and if they decide to go with a certain approach ,ensure you highlight the pro's and cons and let them make the decision.

Of course,you could end up with a case like Myspace who gave users the chance to customize their profiles completely resulting in really confusing overpowering layouts,but interestingly that was what kept Myspace going so long,so give them the choices and also a warning if they go the alternative route.

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Thanks.. it's a public product, so there is no "client" but, I do reach out to select members of the user community for feedback on features... I will with this one as well. Meanwhile, myspace is the perfect example of rope to hang yourself (and your company). Facebook came along with a simple, elegant, common presentation and sunk myspace. Now of course they are ruining it with clutter. I am working on a booking tool. In its best case you should never have to even use it. It should just manage your schedule. I believe in as little tool time as possible. –  Itumac Jan 26 '12 at 21:17
    
I would also bring in A/B testing into the picture and provide both options to users and test their response.Since you said its a booking tool which you might rarely use ,you could use that as a strong point saying that users should just use it and not spend time customizing it which would detract them from achieving their end goal (which i assume would be booking something ?) –  Mervin Johnsingh Jan 26 '12 at 21:24
    
I am sorry I am not more clear... people use our product to manage their business scheduling and offer booking to THEIR clients. One feature we offer is a booking widget which our customers can place on their site. That way, THEIR customers can book their services. We are enhancing the feature by offering the ability for OUR customers to choose colors and design the form that THEIR users fill out. I hope this make sense... and thanks for chatting on this. –  Itumac Jan 26 '12 at 21:32
    
Well in that case,I would recommend allowing users to choose the color scheme since it must mesh with their branding scheme (and if they have to put it somewhere out of the way) to prevent the glaring contrast,you just lost some eyeballs. However do highlight to your potential clients while testing that it would be best to have a fixed form layout as per best practices as it enhances learnability and recall –  Mervin Johnsingh Jan 26 '12 at 21:36
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