Protect Users’ Work

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Principle: Ensure that users never lose their work

This principle is all but absolute. Users should not lose their work as a result of error on their part, the vagaries of Internet transmission, or any other reason other than the completely unavoidable, such as sudden loss of power to a client computer without proper power protection. We’ve gotten so used to being the victim of data loss that we often don’t even notice it. So consider if what happens routinely on the web happened in real life:

You go into Harrod’s Department Store in London. After making your selections, you are asked to fill out a four-page form. A gentleman looks the form over, then points to the bottom of Page 3 at your phone number. “Excuse me,” he says, “Look there. See how you used spaces in your phone number?” When you nod, he continues, “We weren’t expecting you to do that,” at which point, he picks up the four-page form and rips it to shreds before handing you a new, blank form.

Of course, never in a thousand years would such an event take place at Harrod’s, but another venerated British institution did exactly that to me almost twenty years into the miracle of the world wide web when I was invited to give them my emergency contact information for an upcoming flight into London. Every time I would fill out all eight fields on the form, it would come back with an error message about at least one field, having destroyed the entire contents of all eight of them! I’m sure it was carrying out this wanton destruction for my own good, but I could not for the life of me figure out from the messages what it actually wanted. 20 minutes and two browsers later, I gave up. I’m sure other passengers are abandoning their effort far earlier.

Travel sites, in general, think nothing of repeatedly tossing all the information the user has entered about cities, times, days of travel, frequent flyer numbers, anything that takes time and trouble to type in. The user may attempt nothing more radical than leaving a half hour later, but that is apparently grounds to destroy their choice of departure city and date as well as arrival city and date. If the user is impolite enough to go to the bathroom, well, that sort of activity poses a significant security risk, so of course their entire evening’s work must be destroyed, with a message explaining its been done for their own good.

Travel sites may be the tip of the iceberg, but websites in general, are notorious for their cavalier attitude when it comes to their user’s hard work, and it doesn’t stop there: Traditional applications continue to crash and burn, and the excuses for entire computer systems crashing and burning are at an end. Small portables can survive a power outage. It’s no longer acceptable that many of today’s high-end desktop computers and operating systems still do not support and encourage continuous-save. That, coupled with a small amount of power-protected memory, could eliminate the embarrassment of $5000 machines offering less reliability than 10-cent toys.