In behavioral decision research, a definition of preference is

Relatively stable evaluative judgment (ie, like or dislike) regarding objects or stimuli. Impacts behavior towards approach or avoidance [1]

Subjects can have preferences for choice options. After a decision is made, there is a choice, which was chosen among the choice options.

This is why I prefer the term (user) settings in constrast to (user) preferences in menus, because a preference (psych.) is not a choice, only the basis for it. In line with that, there are some more terms that are unclear to me:

  • Are there terms differentiating a user setting, eg, Color with available options Red, Green, and Yellow, from an assigned user setting, e.g. Color with assigned option Red?

  • How do we refer to the process of setting a user setting? Is "assigned" the or a correct term or are there others, eg. "instantiated"?

[1] Scherer, K. R. (2005). What are emotions? And how can they be measured?. Social science information, 44(4), 695-729.

  • 1
    Good point about "preference", but I don't think anyone's going to start a revolution from their bed. As for the other words, definitely "assign" or "select" or "choose", not "instantiate" (a very user-unfriendly word). "Setting" is harder since it can refer either to the field or the value. I guess I would differentiate it by pairing it with one term or the other. Oct 18, 2023 at 13:25
  • I think preferences are only possible between a given set of possibilities. For example, I'd prefer to be ultra-mega-rich, but that is not a possibility (well, technically there's an extremely slim chance). However, if the choice is between "do you prefer red or blue?" then I have to choose what I can choose, no matter if I actually prefer green. Either way, my wife is in the other room finishing a user research section; she's a Psychology PhD, and the subject overlaps with her specialty, so I will ask her.
    – Devin
    Oct 18, 2023 at 15:12

1 Answer 1


The definition of preference you've provided is accurate, although it lacks context.

Firstly, Behavioral Decision (BD) has its own distinct set of rules and definitions, which may or may not align with those of UX.

Viewing UX from a more psychological perspective, which includes behavioral psychology, preferences exist independently of any system and are shaped by beliefs, learning, past experiences, mass media, and various other factors. A straightforward and common example is fashion: people may prefer clothing that is in vogue this season, even though they chose different clothes just the previous season.

However, BD takes an approach where preferences are rooted in values, often quantifiable, or at least assessable through user testing or benchmarking. BD even employs specific tools and research methods for both preferences and values. For instance, the assessment of uncertain outcomes, as seen in research on gambling, typically evaluates preferences. On the other hand, when the expected outcome falls between extremes, as in the case of a Differential Semantic scale, BD research methods tend to measure values. It's important to note that this distinction between measuring preferences and values should not be confused with qualitative and quantitative research methods, as both preferences and values may involve either or both of these approaches.

In contrast, UX research methodologies and applied UX, such as user interfaces, do not strictly adhere to the principles of pure BD, and preferences and values can often overlap.

This distinction is crucial because in BD, preferences are often given priority over other aspects, whereas in UX and UI, this may or may not be the case.

This brings us to your question: in terms of UI, Preferences are a subset of Settings. It can be a bit confusing, as the cognitive process typically involves:

  1. Preferences (as in pre-existing set of mental values)
  2. Settings
  3. Preferences (as in choice)

To elaborate further: Settings enable the system to function. In most cases, systems come with a default set of values, which may or may not align with preferences. For example, Settings may require your name, API keys, Location, etc., before they can be operational. In other words, unless you configure these mandatory settings, the system won't function.

On the other hand, preferences are sets of values (in contrast to BD) where you can choose options that will make your interaction with the system more engaging. For example, light/dark mode, language, fonts, etc. Therefore, it's evident that Preferences are just a sub-set of Settings, since the system will function the same way whether you define your preferences or not. Hence, these terms are not interchangeable.

About your questions

The above, while a bit long is needed to answer your questions

Are there terms differentiating a user setting, eg, Color with available options Red, Green, and Yellow, from an assigned user setting, e.g. Color with assigned option Red?

Yes, if the setting was initiated by the user, it's a user-driven value or preference. Otherwise the most common name is System Default for UI and Factory Presets for physical UX and digital equipment scenarios.

A default, in computer science, refers to the preexisting value of a user-configurable setting that is assigned to a software application, computer program or device. Such settings are also called presets or factory presets, especially for electronic devices.

Above extract from Wikipedia's Default definition

How do we refer to the process of setting a user setting? Is "assigned" the > or a correct term or are there others, eg "instantiated"?

I don't believe there's a specific name for this, but it will be part of a user flow or a pattern, whether you're inquiring from a user perspective or a stakeholder's perspective.

  • 1
    Thank you (and your wife!) for this thorough answer! Although it presents me with a problem, now it seems, I have to use the term Preferences (as in choice) in a related document. This entails a name clash: Privacy Preferences (instead of the former Privacy Settings) and Privacy Preferences (as in mental values regarding privacy). Do you maybe have some thoughts on how I could differentiate that?
    – mike
    Oct 18, 2023 at 21:15
  • 1
    If I understand your question correctly, you should actually use "Privacy Settings" because mental models and patterns are rarely documented. So, I'd use "Privacy Settings" and then mention "Privacy Preferences" for a high level (pre-existing mental models) and "Privacy Choices" for the UI (just for the sake of clarity).
    – Devin
    Oct 18, 2023 at 22:29

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