Saturday, September 25, 2010

Are you sure you want to read this? Ok / Cancel

Image © iStockphoto.com / budgetstockphoto

We're moving to soft-delete for many objects in our application. By saving old versions of objects we hope to correlate the effects of changes over time. This is a big deal for us because, with detailed history, we expect to increase our predictive capability by several orders of magnitude. It's also a big deal because it's a radical shift in our data model and we built many features assuming deleted objects go away. Once we decided we wanted the capability, however, it made sense to start sooner rather than later. I'm definitely excited about the analytics possibilities, but I'm also excited about a potential user-facing feature soft-delete enables: undo.

I dislike confirmation boxes. You know: "Are you sure you want to do this? Okay or cancel". I find them only incrementally better when they explicitly indicate the action to be performed: "Save these changes or discard these changes?".

Surely it's better to ask a user before making a permanent change than not to ask? Well, yes. But the problem is that there are too many permanent changes presented to the user. So many, I propose, that users learn to approve changes without really thinking about it. Hence, the intended purpose of the confirmation box -- to force the user to think about the change -- is lost in a flurry of okay/cancel dialogs.

The solution is not more confirmation boxes. The solution most certainly is not more annoying confirmation boxes.

The solution is to make the change not permanent. Put another way, if an action is not permanent then there is no need to ask the user for confirmation. Rather, the user is free to revert (i.e., undo) the operation should the user decide the operation was not intended.

From a task-accomplishment perspective it seems like a small, or maybe non-existent, difference. The task was performed or not performed. But from a user perspective it means the difference between an application that is frightening or inviting. Confirmation boxes might as well show skull and crossbones. Undoable operations encourage the user to explore boldly.

I could go on about the benefits of undo over confirmation, but I think others have written much better articles than I. I recommend these two articles.

Follow me on Twitter @jsjacobAtWork.

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