Don't Ever Make Me Hit Save

A little usability story: my girlfriend spent a good chunk of last night working on a paper for her Copyright Law class in Microsoft Word. At about 4am I get a desperate call: “Help! How do I unclose a document?”


She had written something like 5,000 words, cited sources, added pictures and diagrams. Being in a hurry, she never bothered to save the document in the beginning. After a few hours, as she was getting more and more sleep deprived and the massive jar of tar-like coffee emptied out, it’s only understandable she didn’t bother to read or reason about the confirmation dialog, which I’m sure at this point read “Are you sure yadda yadda yadda?”, with the options “Just do what I said”, “Go away” and “Whatever”.

There probably is some delicate procedure in Microsoft Office applications to deal with this occasion, and that’s exactly the point I want to make: when this kind of human error happens, it is not a good time to bring out an extensive and meticulous procedure. This kind of error shouldn’t even be possible in the first place.

If I dig out my rusty Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter from the spare room, put a sheet of paper in it and start typing, I would have to rip out the paper and shred it or burn it in order to make the words vanish. No amount of sleep deprivation will make that happen accidentally. If Word is trying to conform to that usage model, then this crucial part of it should behave like that as well: not that we should be “burning” or “shredding” digital documents, but that it should be really hard to get rid of them by accident.

Instead – and this is 2010, folks – Word offers me a button with the image of a floppy disk, labelled ‘Save’. It’s a little digital dinosaur, fossilized as one of the most important things this application can do, as a reminder of the tough times application developers had to go through back when keeping two different versions of a text document in memory and disk was considered a desirable luxury. Nowadays, when any decent text processor will have built-in version control and infinite steps of undo, is there even a point in having to hit ‘Save’, ever?

What about your application, the one you’re building now? Is there any jurassic ‘Save’ button lying around? If I pick up a form on your web application, do some work on it, go away and come back after lunch, will it rudely tell me I didn’t save my actions?