One of the first things I learned from The Inmates Are Running the Asylum is that confirmation dialogs do more damage than good – I’m referring to the “Are You Sure? OK / Cancel” message that you get when you press a “Delete” button, or do another action that may erase data. The extra confirmation step is annoying and cuts your flow, and if you clicked “Delete” out of confusion you are often likely to press “OK” as well. The real solution: allow “Undo” – this both removes the extra step and truly protects your data by letting you recover what you didn’t mean to erase, a lot more useful than just asking you again if you really want to erase.
As apps are moving online, storage gets cheaper and XMLHttpRequest (aka AJAX) becomes ubiquitous, this is extended into constantly saving data, not just for undo purpose. I think Gmail were among the first to introduce autosave, and it was recently upgraded with the Google Docs spreadsheet – switch on “Automatic Save” and everything is just saved as you enter it. Once data is entered a table cell, an HTTP POST request containing it is sent to the server, and the information is stored there.
This seemingly minor feature didn’t get much attention, but in my eyes it’s one of the most important interface innovations in a long time. At least as important as Undo itself, because the next logical step can now be to remove the “Save” button altogether. Users will simply assume everything they entered is saved somewhere. I think we’ll be surprised how quickly “Save” will be forgotten, like the missing On/Off button of the iPod (and maybe some iPod Nano-like flash memory will be added to all PCs, enabling autosave for desktop software as well).
It’s harder to build this feature on apps where data changes faster. Still, Gmail’s Compose view already autosaves in short intervals – all that’s required, it seems, is just to get rid of the “Discard Message?” pop up (talking of annoying confirmation dialogs). Gmail always tried to steer users towards archiving instead of deleting anyway, why not just automatically save discarded data as a draft when a user closes the Gmail window, or navigates out of Compose? When you do want to save a draft, you’ll just leave the page, knowing your text is safely stored.
No doubt the people who work on Gmail are amongst the smartest in the industry. Unless there’s some deep issues I’m missing, my bet is they will be the ones to lead us into the post-Save era in 2007.
UPDATE: For some reason I was reminded of this post today, 3 years later… Google did drop the “Discard Message?” pop up in favor of Undo option, and with flash drives’ growing share, maybe auto save will gain more ground on desktop apps. But I missed the most important point of autosave: It drops the “save” altogether, helping to finally abstract the file system away from the user. Dealing with files and directories is difficult for many users, and often annoying even for savvy ones. Users shouldn’t have to think about files anymore than they think about memory allocations.