Forgive your users; even when they are drunk!

Forgiveness is an important feature of good design. You should help your users by minimising the impact of mistakes or, ideally, prevent them from happening at all.

One way you can make your interfaces more forgiving is by employing a ‘forcing function’ (aka confirmation). This technique makes the user verify that what they requested is what they intended. There are 2 kinds of confirmation: A dialogue; where you ask the user a question e.g. “Are you sure you want to delete all your files?”; or a 2 step process e.g. armed… fire! Both approaches slow the user down so that it is harder for them to perform the action by mistake and give them an opportunity to change their mind.

Google recently introduced a feature to Gmail called “Mail Goggles” where if you try and send an email late at night over the weekend it assumes you are drunk and forces you to answer a series of mental arithmetic questions first! At first I found this quite funny, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it as an idea.

We’ve all sent emails we regret. Some of these are when you have been out at the weekend and returned home a little worse for the wear. Of course, the software can’t tell that you’re drunk but by introducing a 2 step process it means you can’t just send the email without reflecting upon it. By making the second step a mental arithmetic test, they hope that your lessened mental capacity will be unable to perform the calculations and you’ll give up – or at least recognise you aren’t in the clearest frame of mind!

There aren’t many systems that should go so far as to test their users state of inebriation; but it is worth considering how you can compensate for a users state of mind when they are using your products: will they be under stress, working in a hurry or not giving your product their full attention?

  • Use your system knowledge to check unusual or unexpected data – e.g. if the “Quantity” field on your order form averages less than 10, verify the user meant it if they enter 100
  • When the user is performing a critical step – slow them down by making then perform multiple steps – it will force them to pay more attention and prevent accidents
  • Consider delays on some operations and provide an option to cancel e.g. “Your computer will reboot in 5…4…” – this will slow them down if they are in a hurry
  • Can you be like Google and take the time and day into account to infer anything? Maybe your software could act differently at lunch time or last thing on a Friday?

I think Mail Goggles is a great feature and something we should learn from. It shows a high degree of attention to usage patterns and an innovative solution that could save a user’s blushes. Imagine how relieved you’d be the next day when this feature prevented you sending the email where you told your boss what you really thought of him!

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  1. Posted October 11, 2008 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    The problem is that people quickly learn to click through confirmations without thought, and all you’ve accomplished is to annoy someone a little more – it’s a much better principle to forgive your users by making sure almost all actions can be undone easily.

  2. Ashley Towers
    Posted October 12, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark, great comment – I completely agree! By far the best way is to let people do what they want and let them reverse any mistake – Google use this approach to good effect when you delete an email in gmail. However, once you’ve clicked send on an email it’s gone so there’s no way you could undo it using that approach. By using a series of questions that you have to think about, Mail Goggles stops you being able to ‘click through’ and ignore the warnings.

    You’d be amazed how right you are when you say people click through notices without reading them – have a look at this:

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Confirmation: Make actions 2 step by prompting the user to confirm the action they have requested. Confirmation steps increase the friction of the interface and can be annoying if used too often. You don’t need confirmation steps if the actions are easily undo-able (for example the “Are you sure you want to delete the file” dialogue in Windows XP is unnecessary as the files can be simply removed from the trash). You don’t need to just have OK/Cancel dialogues to add a confirmation step, it could be an additional separate action in an “Arm/Fire” sense. I wrote an article about Google mail’s creative use of a confirmation step to forgive users even when they are drunk! [...]

  2. By UX Special: Forgiveness « popdevelop on April 29, 2010 at 9:04 am

    [...] mail goggles at the official Gmail blog. Usability friction also has a post about mail goggles: Forgive users even when they are drunk. tweetmeme_url = ''; 0 [...]

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