How setting ComboBox options may affect user experience

The problem

This morning I was setting up the default printing preferences of my HP LaserJet printer at the office. As usual, and as do most printer users, I wanted to default my printer to print in grayscale and spend the least amount of ink possible on my day-to-day print jobs – printing for reading, drafts of documents, etc.

Everything went smoothly until I had to set printing quality. When I got to this I was presented with the following options:

Allegedly I am not a common PC user, I spend more than 10 hours a day in front of a PC which makes me a proficient Windows user. Moving on…

Getting into the user’s mind

When I get to this print quality combo box I am presented with two options: “ImageREt 3600” and “600 dpi”. Hum… this is awkward! What the heck does ImageREt3600 mean? Did the person who develop this UI even bother to think who would be using it? I imagine my wife or my mother trying to figure this out! :S

  • What does a user expect to see when trying to change printing quality configuration?
  • Why does he want to change printing quality?
  • What is his degree of expertise in the field?
  • Does he know what dpi stands for?
  • Is 600dpi better or worse than 300dpi?

Predicting what the user needs

I can foresee three scenarios in which a user may think of changing printing quality:

  1. User wants to reduce printing quality because he knows that the lesser the quality the faster document will print;
  2. User wants to reduce printing quality because he knows that the lesser the quality the more ink he will save;
  3. User wants to increase printing quality because he wants the job to be nicely printed.

From my experience using printers, 95% of my printing jobs (you get the picture – most of them) follow under 1 and 2, so I want them to print fast and save ink. As a user I expect to see a quick and easy association of the options I am allowed to choose from, and the real world problem I am trying to solve.

A better approach

At home my printer, which is also an HP shows a much more user friendly list:

There is no doubt that this is a much more intuitive approach than having the printing specifications listed. The user will rapidly and effortlessly make his decision.

Although this is a better way of presenting printing quality to the user, there is no clear association between the options that are presented and the amount of ink one will spend while printing, thus not solving issue 2. Since we do have sufficient space on the right to add some more tips to the user we could easily rewrite the first and last options in the following way:

Fast Draft (less ink)
Fast Normal
Best (more ink)

    Expressing the options this way, will undoubtedly, help the user select the configuration that better suits his needs, regardless of what he is trying to accomplish when changing printing quality.


It is conceivable that this example be applied to analogous scenarios where combo box options picture some sort of ordered set. Just to state another example where this could be applied, think of setting visual effects of a computer game.

It is hard for us developers to take a step back and undress our technical cloak stepping into our user’s shoes. Ultimately, this is the base for the kind of UI gaffe presented in this post. Small considerations that can be thought of when developing software can easily boost the overall user’s experience on the application you are developing.