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It is quite easy to separate preferences, and configuration, but options, and settings have much similar meaning; So similar,in fact, that I can't pick one over another.

Could you please describe the meaning of these two words? What is it common between them, and what is it different?

I have removed "software UI" from the title, as it seems to lead answers off topic. I'm genuinely interested in subtle difference in meaning of named words.

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In the context of software, preferences, configuration, options, settings, customise, etc. can all mean exactly the same thing. Any given supplier may choose to use one or more, and may distinguish between them as they see fit. Microsoft, for example, sometimes use "options" for everything except configurable toolbars/menu choices. But other times they call everything "preferences". –  FumbleFingers Feb 24 '12 at 13:46
    
Preferences say what I prefer, usually without much changes (e.g. align to left or to right), but certain things that are considered features (e.g. connect over ssl, turn antialiasing On) hardly fall into preferences category. Configuration is a set of preferences and/or settings (e.g. debug/release schemes in compiler options). Customise gives you acces to the options/setting/preferences. I hope that you see that there are differences. And hence my question, because from all these words only options and setting are hard to distinguish. –  Krom Stern Feb 24 '12 at 14:19
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My point is that the English language itself does not govern which words will be assigned to various components within code or a UI. You can decide distinctions for yourself, as can other software authors, but it's nothing more than an invitation to protracted discussion to ask here how everyone else might differentiate them. You could just use a dictionary to establish the basic "flavour" of each word, but that won't dictate how people use them in a software context. –  FumbleFingers Feb 24 '12 at 14:28
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I agree with FumbleFingers - the definitions make them synonyms and how you use them is a question of style. This question belongs better on UX SE. –  Lynn Feb 24 '12 at 15:20
    
This isn't really a question about the English language, but at most about the common conventional terminology used within one particular field. –  Jay Feb 24 '12 at 15:24
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closed as off topic by FumbleFingers, Lynn, aedia λ, kiamlaluno, simchona Feb 25 '12 at 4:13

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3 Answers

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Options refers to things you may choose;you may select one over another. So, the options you chose are "preferences".

Settings mostly implies the "context" that the options you chose are in and is more like configuration. E.g;

Color is "setting"; red, green, blue e.t.c are options.
Font is "setting"; Arial, Times New roman are options.
Settings: color, font

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I believe you're over-thinking this, and you're prompting your users to do the same. To illustrate my point, consider the mess that Microsoft puts in Visual Studio.

Microsoft C# 2010 Express menu, showing "Options," "Customize" and "Settings" menu items.

For those who may not know, Visual Studio is the software used to create software for Windows. It is a very complicated application by necessity, but one would think it would be the exemplar of what Windows software should be. It should not violate Microsoft's own advice to developers, i.e.,

Options dialog boxes

  • Don't separate options from customization. That is, don't have both an Options command and a Customize command. Users are often confused by this separation. Instead, access customization through options.

(Microsoft Corp., Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines.)

That said, I submit that a consensus has formed that in the Windows ecosystem, user options/preferences/settings are options, and in the Apple ecosystem, they are preferences. Cf.

Preferences

Preferences are user-defined settings that your app remembers from session to session. Users expect to be able to customize the appearance and behavior of your app in preferences. For example, in Finder preferences, users can customize the contents of Finder windows and the behavior of File > New Finder Window, among other things.

(Apple Inc., Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines.)

The bottom line here: Think of your user, just as all writers must think of their wished-for world of readers. I don't care if you call the particular thing a setting, a preference, an option, or a dooblegunk. Just be consistent. Don't make me remember that my color things are dooblegunks and toolbar button things are gobblebuddies. If it's a display color, a filter, the order of my toolbar buttons, whether the application remembers its window position, where it stores its files, whether it starts with my computer, or any other thing that relates your application to me, my computer, and how I use it, just give one name to whatever you decide to call such things, and give me one interface (or at least a set of closely-grouped, similarly- and descriptively-named interfaces) to access them.

META

Some will read this answer and the underlying question as being off-topic. I challenge them, before they vote to close it, to explain that this is not among the severest of challenges that any writer faces, that is, to explain that this discussion does not crystallize to, "You have one place to say, 'If you want to change how this piece of software displays its information and operations to you, there is a place to do it, and it is right here. Oh, and by the by, you get one word and one quarter-inch picture to communicate that thought to a world of readers.'"

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Better answer than mine. I let myself get distracted by thoughts of "what sort of usages have I encountered for preferences/options/settings/configuration". –  Esteis Feb 24 '12 at 18:29
    
Microsoft really are hopeless sometimes! In the full Visual Studio Ultimate they have much the same three choices "Settings, Customise, Options" under "Tools", but then again under "Debug" they have a single thing called "Options and Settings...". One wonders if the programmers ever refer to their own company's "advice to developers". –  FumbleFingers Feb 26 '12 at 22:56
    
@FumbleFingers: VS is a mess in that regard. I count 9 menu items, not including the ones in my screenshot, that are ostensibly different kinds of settings. Two of them are in the Help menu! It does seem to be a company-wide epidemic, though, given the p9rominence of Windows 8's facility to search for settings. (And who knows what's not a setting now, given that it's where they put the "Shut down" command.) –  Phil N. Mar 6 '12 at 20:57
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When it comes to software? I'd say something like this.

  • The menu item that is sometimes under File, sometimes under Options, sometimes under Tools and (in Apple) under the program menu; the one that brings you to the dialog box for configuring your program:

    • is labeled many things, including 'Settings', 'Preferences', 'Options', and 'Configure...'
    • Apple consistently uses 'Preferences', and prescribes the same for programs that run under OS X and iOS. Gnome uses 'Preferences', too, I believe. I haven't got an English-language Windows at hand.
  • When talking about the group of things that menu item lets you inspect and change:

    • I've seen 'settings', 'preferences', 'options', 'configuration', and 'configuration options'. (And 'config file', but I'm not sure that that counts. ^_^)
    • Just pick one, and be moderately consistent. Above all, let your language be mostly-consistent with how you label the menu item. :-)
    • "You can change this in your preferences."
    • "You can changes this in the preferences menu."
  • Individual items that you can set to something are usually referred to by name, or called 'option', or 'setting'.

    • "Set 'Minutes between autosaves' to 3."
    • "Find the 'Input language' option and set it to 'Koeterwaals'."
    • "Find the setting that says 'English' and set it to 'French'."
    • And any recombinations of the above three examples. Again: just pick something and be mostly consistent.
  • If you're talking about an item and what it's been set to, I usually hear people call it a 'setting' or 'preference'.

    • "Maybe it's a strange setting somewhere?" (Not 'preference')
    • "Did you check your cookies settings?"
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