Why 'quiet' options to programs aren't as useful as you think

October 31, 2011

Every so often, someone writes a program that is overly chatty by default (usually in the interests of being user-friendly) and then thinks 'I know, I'll make sysadmins happy by giving it an option to be quiet'. They are then often surprised when sysadmins seem to find the new option not all that useful or compelling. The particular example I'm thinking of here is Debian's apt-get, but there are others.

I can't speak for other sysadmins, but I can tell you why I'm not enthused. It has to do with trust. In order to use your 'quiet' option, I have to trust that it isn't too quiet, ie that you haven't turned off any important messages along with the unimportant ones. If your quiet option turns off too much it's actively dangerous to use, in theory more dangerous than seeing all of the messages at default verbosity. Unfortunately for this trust, you've already established that you have a bad idea of what messages to print when simply by making me need a quiet option. Unless you've quite thoroughly documented what the quiet option turns off, I'm generally going to avoid it and take my chances.

(Paradoxically I'm more willing to forgive overly quiet programs that need a verbose switch almost all of the time. Possibly this is just my biases speaking, because at least in theory I should be just as worried about the same issue.)

Of course, in practice an overly verbose default insures that while I may see important messages I won't actually notice them and thus won't react. But it feels different to know that I had a chance to see a message than to worry that I've accidentally suppressed it entirely (and through a deliberate choice), even if the practical results are the same.

(One way to put it is that one is a mistake and the other is negligence. That's not quite accurate, but as analogies go I think it's pretty close.)

Written on 31 October 2011.
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Last modified: Mon Oct 31 22:56:54 2011
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