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UX Design
5 minute read

How to Improve App Settings UX

Well-designed settings panels allow users to tailor apps to their needs and help companies lower customer-support costs. What techniques ensure effortless settings UX?

Like other unsung UI patterns, settings panels make apps easier to use but only seem to garner interest when they’re flawed. Users may take settings for granted but designers shouldn’t. Well-designed settings panels allow users to tailor apps to their needs and help companies lower customer-support costs.

App settings help users manage items such as push notifications, time zones, and login credentials. Every app has settings, but users and designers routinely overlook the interface panels that control them. Users tend to ignore settings, and designers seem to neglect them until late in the app design process.

There’s little reason for users to ponder app settings, but designers have ample incentive. Well-designed settings reduce customer-support costs and boost engagement by allowing users to customize their apps on demand. The goal is to make it easy for users to manage their preferences, but it’s challenging to design settings that align with users’ needs. Even something as simple as allowing users to update email addresses takes careful planning.

What design practices ensure effortless settings UX?

This user flow represents the actions required to update an email address.
This user flow represents the actions required to update an email address.

Guidelines for Better App Settings UX

Group Categories

When apps have multiple settings, it can be difficult for users to find what they need. The solution is to group settings into categories. For instance, Shopify has a long list of settings, but they’re arranged in categories that are easy to browse.

Shopify's settings are carefully categorized.
Shopify’s settings are carefully categorized.

Establish Visual Hierarchy

Settings panels can’t succeed without visual hierarchy. Bring frequently used settings to the forefront; if there are too many options, separate categories into subpages to reduce cognitive load.

Facebook displays frequently used settings at a high level. N26 separates categories into subpages.
Facebook displays frequently used settings at a high level. N26 separates categories into subpages.

Avoid Names With Jargon

Jargon leads users to look for context outside of settings panels. Settings are best described in plain language that indicates functionality. Avoid technical or clever names that appease product and marketing teams but confuse users.

Calm's settings categories are easy to understand.
Calm’s settings categories are easy to understand.

Provide Clear Descriptions

Settings need descriptions that explain their impact. Clearly define what settings do, but don’t provide so much information that users gloss over important details. Once again, use everyday language, and enable the option to restore default settings.

Brave's descriptions clearly explain each setting's impact.
Brave’s descriptions clearly explain each setting’s impact.

Give Status Indicators and Feedback on Saved States

In many apps, updated settings save automatically, but users still need feedback that confirms their changes. If users must click a “Save” button, make sure that it’s prominent. Forcing users to scroll is bound to result in unsaved settings.

Atlassian Jira gives users instant feedback when settings are updated.
Atlassian Jira gives users instant feedback when settings are updated.

Use the Appropriate UI Controls

Radio buttons and checkboxes are standard UI controls in settings panels, but they aren’t interchangeable:

  • Radio buttons require users to make one (and only one) selection from a list of options.
  • Checkboxes allow users to make multiple selections (or none at all) from a list of options.

When actions don’t require review or confirmation, use toggle switches and consider adding “On/Off” labels for more clarity.

Radio buttons, checkboxes, and toggle switches are common UI components in app settings panels.
Radio buttons, checkboxes, and toggle switches are common UI components in app settings panels.

Provide Basic and Advanced Settings

A clever way to handle apps with numerous settings is to provide two levels of input. Basic settings populate settings panels by default and satisfy the needs of average users, while advanced settings appeal to users who want more granular control.

Spotify's advanced settings allow users to fine-tune their listening experiences.
Spotify’s advanced settings allow users to fine-tune their listening experiences.

Send Email Confirmations

Many apps contain sensitive data, including financial information. Email confirmations exist outside settings panels, but they’re critical because users need to be alerted when their account details change. Depending on the app or settings involved, it may not be necessary to send confirmations for every update.

Email confirmations should be sent whenever users update login credentials.
Email confirmations should be sent whenever users update login credentials.

Tips for the App Settings Design Process

Start With Information Architecture and User Flow

Information architecture is the best place to start the settings design process. Use card sorting exercises to understand how users would group settings, then establish hierarchy among the categories that emerge. Design user flows for each setting, generate settings labels that align with users’ expectations, and strive to keep the number of top-level categories to four or five.

Define Default Modes

Default settings present users with theoretically optimal experiences from their first interactions. The aim is to make onboarding effortless and equip users with settings that support their goals (another reason why user research is so essential). For instance, password security apps like 1Password and LastPass have default settings designed to protect users’ confidential information.

1Password and LastPass have default settings that protect users' sensitive data.
1Password and LastPass have default settings that protect users’ sensitive data.

Contact Stakeholders Early in the Design Process

Start collaboration right away, and talk to stakeholders about their settings-related needs. Meet with product managers, security experts, designers, engineers, and anyone else interested in settings—waiting until late in the settings design process could lead to expensive redesigns.

Talk to Customer Support

Design refinement begins with identifying users’ pain points, and customer support teams deal with users’ problems every day. They know which aspects of an app confuse and what settings are difficult to manage. If possible, regularly attend customer support meetings to gain insight for future iterations of settings panels.

Prototype and Test

Build and test prototypes to see how settings function alongside core product features. High-fidelity prototypes are an excellent way to test the effectiveness of UI controls in usability sessions. Here again, waiting until the last minute could prove costly.

Thoughtful App Settings Improve UX

Designers strive to make apps easy to use. Prominent features receive the most attention, but often, it’s the less visible design details that improve usability. A good settings experience is organized, intuitive, and allows users to fine-tune their daily interactions. It provides relevant feedback, employs well-known UI components that align with users’ mental models, and enables users to make updates without contacting customer support.

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

The goal of user experience (UX) design is to help people achieve their goals by making products and systems easy and enjoyable to use. Products exist to improve people’s lives, but if users’ needs aren’t prioritized, products can hinder the very people they’re meant to help.

UX flows, or user flows, are diagrams that show the routes users take to complete tasks when interacting with products. Flows map out the actions and outcomes that are available to users. Flows help app design teams create frictionless experiences wherein users can quickly update their preferences.

App settings help users manage items such as push notifications, time zones, login credentials, and payment information. The aim of settings UX is to make it easy, intuitive, and safe for users to manage their settings preferences.

Customer-centric businesses prioritize their core customers’ happiness at every interaction and rely on data to improve underperforming touchpoints. In such a model, the goal is to foster long-term loyalty, and profits are viewed as a byproduct of customer satisfaction.