I've seen a lot of different applications use a lot of different terminology for the part of the application that lets you change the settings. But are there any advantages/conventions as to using one over the other? Which leads to most understanding and least confusion and why? Are there any I've forgotten besides options, preferences, settings, and configurations that are worthy of note?

This question is related, but I'm looking for answers regarding a desktop application, not a web-app to which the user has an account.

  • 1
    There's also "parameters". Semantically, it seems that "preferences" is best for describing tuning a system to the user's liking. However, all terms are used all over the place without any pattern other than some companies preferring one term over others. Also, all of them are often localized as the same word in other languages.
    – dnbrv
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 4:30
  • The way I'd look at it, use preferences for desktop apps and settings for web apps. I don't reckon anyone really cares about the semantics, but those two wordings sound most natural and seem most common to me! Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 11:32

4 Answers 4


To the absolute majority of users, they're all the same. Users aren't going to go "Ok, I'm looking for Preferences, and this here thing says Settings, so it must not be what I need".

Most of the problems with unclear terms arise from exactly this type of backstage dilemmas - the techie developers say that Preferences isn't exactly the right term, because in our app it's actually closer to Settings - while the difference between the two is only clear to the devs (and their mind is not totally made up either). There recently was either a blog post or a question here that discussed Clarity vs. Accuracy, but I can't find it right now. The bottom line is that for the users, Clarity comes first. That is to say that the actual semantic differences between these terms are too subtle to take them into account. Treat them as complete synonyms, unless you need to use more than one term in the same app.

As to which one to use after all - there's a number of factors that may help you decide. Platform standards, similar apps, appropriate icons, space available ("configuration" is much longer than "options"), terms used elsewhere in the app (if you're already using one of those terms in a different setting, you might want to either differentiate between the two, or tell the user that they're similar). Sometimes it can be something as "superficial" as looking at other items in the same navigation level and selecting a term which has a non-recurring initial letter, to make it easier to recognize it in the list.

  • 2
    "Ok, I'm looking for Preferences, and this here thing says Settings, so it must not be what I need" - You'd be shocked. There have been many times when I've said to someone "open the menu, then go to preferences..." and paused whilst they've looked around confused for preferences when it was in fact labelled "settings". And one of these people was a programmer, shockingly! May not be the same as what you're saying (and more to do with following orders), but perhaps some people lack that natural translation of "settings/preferences/options/config/etc". Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 11:29

Because you're asking about a desktop application, the answer is straightforward: follow the conventions of the OS so users will be familiar with the terms your app is using.

On Windows, this means "Options". On Mac or Linux, this means "Preferences".


  • If your app runs on multiple platforms, try to use the apporpriate name for each platform. Even though this means that the Mac/Linux vs. PC versions will have different menus, different help content, etc. it's nicer to your users. If this is too expensive, then try to pick the name used by your app's "dominant" platform.

  • If your app has an online equivalent then use the same term in both places. For example, Google Chrome chose to use "Settings" because that's what it's called on Google.com. Similarly, Outlook Web Access calls it "Options" just like in Outlook.


The context and user understanding is prime importance to bring in the right terminology. There could be subtle difference in each of these addressed:

  1. Preferences - As used in Adobe Acrobat reader - Here it is a reader software that helps user to read docs, and the term Preference indicate the choice for which user would like to bring in for efficient reading. Preferences as a human touch, since it is like - "Your Preferences can be changed here".

  2. Options - As used in Windows DVD Maker software - A tool to add picture/video to the DVD and compile them or burn them. "What kind of Options do I have while burning" - so should be the user connotation.

In both these cases there is the human touch, where it puts user in the focus, and revolves around them. Its more predominantly focuses user language that can make them comprehend easily.

  1. Settings and Configurations are alike sophisticated bundle of terms, where it leads to as if its inbuilt and regulated externally. In the same Windows DVD Maker, inside the Options window, there is a term "How do I change my DVD Settings?" which is fixed set of rules, where its confined to the software and the admin or the developer has built in the features. It does not mean Options and Preferences are not pre-defined. But Settings looks alike a Past tense, that was done ahead in time, where Options and Preferences are still available at user discretion that can change in Present time. When a Admin is the user we would not want to call the term as Options, Preferences - but should be Configuration and Settings, since he rules the world for that software and would be best to do the Settings part of the software.

It means that the User, Context and location will widely decide the term that needs to go.

  • You haven't explained any semantic differences between the terms.
    – dnbrv
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 4:23
  • The whole exercise by inkmarble is to tell us to overlook the finer semantic differences and stress on the user's perspective and the 'human touch'.
    – Kris
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 8:53
  • @Kris: From user's perspective, there's little difference between the terms and none of them adds more "human touch" than others.
    – dnbrv
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 15:46

Google suggests the word "setting" and forbids using synonyms like "preferences" or "options" here in its patterns for mobile application settings.

So if you're looking for a accurate resource, here it is.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.