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Given that preferences and settings are roughly equatable to users of websites, it seems the more commonly used term would be preferable for the sake of being more readily understood. I haven't been able to find a resource telling me which of these is more common, other than just doing an informal survey of lots of sites. Can anyone point to a resource for stats on word usage or studies including these words?

Note: this is for websites, not platform-specific applications.

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No clear winner in sight. Googlefight shows preferences gets 194.000.000 results and settings 201.000.000. googlefight.com/… –  Marjan Venema Jul 31 '13 at 20:33
    
Googlefight! That's a great resource, exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. –  tajmo Jul 31 '13 at 21:22
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When I have synonym crises like this, I normally just choose the one with fewer syllables. I don't know if it is a wise way of choosing, but it seems to provide some reasoning. –  Brendon Jul 31 '13 at 23:31
    
What about Options? –  Feuermurmel Feb 1 at 21:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Settings vs Preferences

According to Google Ngram, there is a consistent preference for "settings" (see what I did there?)

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I'm not sure that the frequency of the words in books (= in real sentences) is really relevant to their usage as menu items in websites. –  Alayric Aug 14 '13 at 11:52

There's a few discussions on it already around the web.

They are very similar. 'Preferences' usually control the settings of your personal favorites -- things of little consequence -- like color of font, type size, background photo... -- usually personal prefences. The tern 'settings' is much broader and can impact system issues -- ram size, network adapter.... This is how it works in my mind. Of course, developers are free to label things any way they seem fit.

http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1203496

All four are often used as interchangeable terms in English - however, they do have slightly different 'official' meanings...

Configuration - how you set up what an application does 'initially' - typically when you install it... Settings - how you change what an application does after it's been installed... Preferences - how you prefer an application to do things - after it's been installed [==settings]... Options - how you change what an application does [after it's been installed] - including some things that it might not have done in the initial 'default configuration / settings': i.e. there might can be additional 'optional' settings that you can 'turn on or off'...

http://sketchucation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=180&t=27737

There does seem to be some minor differences, but you could probably use them interchangeably if you really wanted to.

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Thanks, that definitely adds some nuance to the terms and leads me toward once choice based on shades of meaning. However, I'm still curious to find out which is more commonly used. –  tajmo Jul 31 '13 at 20:10
    
While you can spend a lot of time and effort to discover which term is most commonly used, if (seemingly in this situation) there isn't a clear winner and the both term's meanings are obvious to the user, then does there have to be a winner? Using one over the other could very well have a negligible impact. Use what sounds best. Use what works best with the other navigation terms in how it reads and looks. In the end, it may make no difference and time may be better spent focusing on other UX concerns in the project. –  wootcat Aug 1 '13 at 13:28

Further to Revolt's nice break down of the different terms, it seems clear to me that "preferences" is actually quite different from "settings" (despite some people using them interchangeably).

If something comes with a default value, then that setting is not a preference until the user changes it!

Whose preference, exactly, does it reflect when still in the default state? ...certainly not the user's (it can only be a developer's), so it is silly to name it name way.

Following that logic, the only things that could reasonably be called preferences are things with a "default value" of "non-existent" (which means they have more in common with "options", as defined by Revolt's answer, than with "settings"). An example would be the ability to have an e-mail app highlight certain e-mails, such as those sent directly "To" you as opposed to "CC" or "BCC". The highlighting would not exist by default, so settings surrounding how the highlighting works could reasonably be called preferences.

This of course, means that "settings" is a better choice for wide use, and should be the standard.

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On Mac OS X this menu item is standard in all desktop applications and is called "Preferences" - so if you are making a desktop application and it will be released on Mac then you should call it this and put into appropriate location on the main menu.

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Thanks. This is for websites; I updated the question to reflect the distinction. –  tajmo Jul 31 '13 at 20:17
    
Still, if you want to compare number of usages - count everything Mac as "Preferences". iPhone icon says "Settings" though. –  Eugene Jul 31 '13 at 20:22

For a website, as opposed to an application, I think preferences make sense. Preferences implies that it is a settings section allowing the user to make choices according to their preference.

Preferences are usually optional.

Settings, in my mind, implies that you are changing the way something works. More specifically, you might NEED to change a setting to make it work. They are less optional. For example, you might need to input an API key so the application can connect with another account.


I think using a modifier can help clarify too. For example on a "Settings" page, you could have a "Layout Preferences" section.

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