Save changes before quitting?

By Niko Kitsakis, January 2019

I was lucky to have been growing up at an opportune time in computing history. The Macintosh came out when I was five and with it we saw the advent of the graphical user interface¹. I was also lucky that we didn’t just have a single one of those machines around at home but a couple – and there was no shortage in software or books about the subject either.

Me in front of an Apple II ca. 1983.

Me in front of an Apple II ca. 1983.

When you grow up surrounded by computers like that, you develop an instinctive feel for what is enjoyable to use and what is not. There was even a term for this. People called good Macintosh software “Mac-like” because that’s what it felt like².
If an application did not adhere to those seemingly unwritten rules, you would develop an itch in the back of your head. Something was off.

This “Mac-like” feeling was at the core of the classic Mac OS era. It’s what gave the Mac its legendary status and its place in history. And while the first versions of OS X broke with some conventions, things became better as OS X progressed. That is to say, until 10.7 came out and started a trend of questionable design decisions that has been continuing ever since.

But it’s not only Apple that seems to have forgotten its own roots in making good Human Interfaces, the rest of the software industry too seems strangely preoccupied with reinventing the wheel while making it worse with every iteration. A sad state of affairs given that the people at Apple once wrote the best book on the topic. I’m talking about Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, the only book you’ll ever need to read on the subject of user interfaces (make sure you get a copy – or find a PDF online – which was published before 1997.)

The Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines.

My copy of Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines. There are multiple versions of this book that have been published throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Do you want me to save this for you?

I see dozens of examples of bad interfaces everyday but not one is as staggeringly stupid as the “Save Changes” dialogue box. Let’s start at the beginning and look at the first version of said dialogue box (that I know of):

Screenshot of MacPaint as seen in the original Macintosh review of Byte Magazine in February 1984.

Screenshot of MacPaint as seen in the original Macintosh review of Byte Magazine in February 1984.

You have seen this countless times: it’s what pops up when you try to close a document that has unsaved changes. You are being asked a question and given three options to click. Simple enough you may think.
Now take a look at the refined version of that same dialogue box that came out some time after:

To save or not to save…

To save or not to save…

If you take note of the changes, you’ll see that there is now

The text change reflects the fact that you could now have multiple applications open at once. Otherwise it’s not important to our example so let’s focus on the other elements. Two trends are going to become apparent, speed and safety:

The icon with its exclamation mark gives you an immediate idea of the character of the message. “Be cautious” it says, “pay attention.”

Then we have the buttons which no longer say things like “Yes” or “No” but have been changed to verbs which say “Save” and “Don’t Save”. If you glance at those verbs you don’t have to read and understand the text to know what’s going on.

Now look at the new layout of the buttons: Of those three, the first button – Don’t Save – will make you lose data while the other two – Save and Cancel – will save data. In this new layout, the button that will make you lose data stands separated on the left from the two buttons that won’t. This reduces the chance you will accidentally press the wrong option.

Lastly, the most commonly used option – Save – is highlighted and can be activated by pressing the return key on the keyboard.

Go back up now to the first screenshot and compare it to what we’ve just seen. It’s quite astonishing how much difference these changes make isn’t it?

But unfortunately, these things do not only evolve, sometimes they devolve. Fast forward around 25 years to 2018 and you’ll find this in Adobe Premiere:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…

No icon, no verbs and the unsafe option is right in between the safe ones. This is what happens when you hire Windows developers.
You would think that with all these people around nowadays who carry job titles like “User Experience Designer”, “Human Factor Engineer” and “Usability Interaction Designer” – to name just a few – the users would get better tools to work with³.

Why is this important?

Bad interfaces like that add up in terms of time that they cost you during the day. They also cost you in terms of cognitive load: you have to read the whole text to understand what’s going on before you can press any button and you have to be careful about it or you might lose data. As a user, with my mind focused on my work, this additional cognitive load is the last thing I need. The tools I use should get out of my way.
The dialogue box we looked at is not the main problem of course, but a symptom of a bigger trend. I can’t help but think, that many people who produce software like this simply don’t know what to look out for anymore. The only tip I can give them is to read the book I mentioned above. I didn’t call it “the only book you’ll ever need to read on the subject of user interfaces” for nothing.

Imagine the boost in productivity for the users if developers spend more time on the details – which makes me remember my favourite Charles Eames quote yet again: “The details are not the details; they make the product.”
Maybe the people responsible for design decisions should try that approach before they call themselves Human Factor User Experience Usability Interaction Engineer or whatever it may be…

  1. Yes, there had been some graphical user interfaces around before the Macintosh came along, some even commercial, but going down that road is like arguing that there were smart phones before the iPhone. ↑
  2. I remember there being something in the air about the whole Macintosh experience as well. For example, like with the “i” of “iMac” 14 years later, “Mac” was used as a prefix for a lot of things. MacPaint and MacWrite are the famous examples from Apple but third parties would use the “Mac” prefix as well. There was even a tank game called Mac Attack. ↑
  3. Mind you that none of these job descriptions existed when Apple provided a working solution to the problem. ↑