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When should you ask a user “Are you sure you want to do that?” Bear in mind that asking this question when you don’t have to has more than one bad effect:

  1. Obviously, it wastes the user’s time and may even annoy them.
  2. It also contributes to the general problem of “too damned many dialog boxes in computing”. This is subtly but importantly different from the previous point: It trains the user to unthinkingly click the default option in any dialog box, just to keep it from wasting their time.
  3. Finally, it may actually hinder the user’s ability to leave your program. Look at this page by Joel Spolsky, and search for “exit Juno”. A user thought the “Are you sure you want to exit?” dialog meant that the computer was advising her that there were ill effects from doing so.

Okay, that last one seems like sort of an edge case, right? But even the first two items are enough reason to pay attention to when you should — and shouldn’t — ask the user to confirm something.

My proposal: Only ask a user for confirmation when the action was initiated by a single click or keystroke, and it has some kind of bad effects. Yes, this means that any time you ask someone to confirm whether they want to exit your program, and they have already saved all their work, you just wasted their time. This one’s particularly prevalent in the gaming world, I’ve noticed: Even if you’re in between games, and your scores are all saved — meaning the worst possible consequence of exiting the game is that you’ll have to start the application again — most games will show you a “Do you really want to exit Game Name?” dialog anyway.

MS Word gets this exactly right. If your document hasn’t been changed since the last time you saved it, then exiting the program has no ill effects. If you click the little X, or press Alt+F4, MS Word won’t even bother to ask you “Are you sure?”; it’ll just exit with no muss and no fuss. It’s only if you have some unsaved work that you’ll see the “Do you want to save your changes?” dialog. And if your document already has a filename, Word doesn’t bother to prompt you for a new one; you only get the “Save As…” dialog if the document doesn’t yet have a filename.

The program only bothers the user if it has to; if it can figure things out on its own, it does. Just the way it should be.

If you’re writing another application — I don’t care whether it’s whether it’s a web application, Rich Internet Application, desktop application, or smartphone application — please take a hint from the way MS Word handles confirmation questions. Don’t make your app be the software equivalent of “that guy”.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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kai_mactane

July 2011

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