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Why an undo option is better than a confirmation dialog

Lots of computer activity will trigger a confirmation dialog. It’s usually in the form of a warning intended to give you another chance to reconsider what you’re doing. When deleting a bunch of files, for instance, most systems will ask you if you’re sure this is what you want to do before deleting them. While accomplishing the task they were designed for, I often find that these dialogs ruin my work flow by interrupting me. I don’t like being interrupted and that’s why I prefer an option to undo a task over a confirmation dialog any day.So how can a confirmation dialog be substituted by an undo option? I give you exhibit 1: Gmail. In the Gmail interface selecting a bunch of emails and clicking delete doesn’t trigger a confirmation dialog it just deletes the emails and gives you the option to undo afterward.

undo discard

undo send message

At this point you might ask: “what’s the difference and why does it matters so much?” It matters because in situations where there is a small chance for error, it doesn’t make sense to ask “are you sure?” every time. It makes sense to offer an undo for those few cases where you made a mistake. It’s a change in philosophy. Do I trust the user to know what he’s doing most of the time, but provide him the ability to undo a mistake. Or do I treat the user as an idiot who must be continually reminded to not make mistakes. So, dear programmers: I know what I’m doing so give me the option to undo and stop interrupting me with confirmation dialogs! Please.

While some operating systems allow you to reduce the amount of confirmations you see by customizing some settings, the way to handle many situations still seems to be with a confirmation dialog even when they can be undone. I understand that their use is essential in situations where a change is irreversible, like an uninstall.

But for so many things simply performing the action without interruption and then providing the ability to undo is in my opinion far more user friendly.

July 29, 2009

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