Unforgiven - user-interface labels

24 June 2005

Peter Hilton

by Peter Hilton

If you are in IT, format is what you do to storage media, or perhaps a data representation standard, but to most people, format is an immutable property of what things look like.

This, of course, was the culprit in that sorry digital camera tale - 'I was on my way back from holiday, and I thought it would make my photos look different'. I have now heard this three times from people who lost all of their photos (in which case you need Media Investigator. One had even used computers enough to realise what was happening, just when it was already <too> late: perhaps a progress message like “formatting…​” was enough to make him switch context from photos to electronic storage.

A word whose pre-computing meaning has long fallen by the wayside is “clipboard”. I have been used to using the computer’s “clipboard” since my first Atari ST in 1989, but I have almost never used a “real” clipboard. At last year’s family Christmas lunch in a pub, my uncle pulled out a clipboard to check who had paid, which seemed faintly ridiculous. So how much sense does the Macintosh clipboard icon make to young people these days?

Similarly, the floppy disk and dot-matrix printer icons for the original Apple Macintosh made perfect sense then, but now they are pictures of artifacts that we no longer use: Marcin Wichary’s icon gallery shows the icons for newer devices. How long before the 'save' icon’s floppy disk is no longer a recognisable object?

Are these soon-to-be-unrecognisable icons worse than an ambiguous format option? Perhaps not, if you avoid pressing unlabelled big red buttons in case they do something bad. Besides, save and print are not nearly as bad as delete all photos.

So what is the moral of this story? You might think it a warning to carefully choose good names (and icons) that avoid these problems. However, language just does not work that way - there will be always be ambiguities - and you cannot fit either a picture or a thousands words in an icon or on a small gadget’s display. This is really a story about forgiveness.

The Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines section on forgiveness instructs developers “Always warn people before they initiate a task that will cause irretrievable data loss” which means allowing for people misunderstanding their cameras' format options by asking for confirmation, with the warning: “This option will delete all of the photos on the storage card”.

This is especially worth remembering when developing web applications, since you need to resort to a (non-standard) JavaScript window.confirm for confirmation alert boxes, which HTML forms sadly lack.