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Saving considered harmful

April 2nd, 2008 - Category: Google, Usability | .

“Do you want to save your changes?” How many times a day does your computer ask you that question? Most programs do when you close them. When you ask Windows XP to shut down, the process takes a good minute extra because of all the programs that bug you about this. And it’s all utterly pointless.

Back in the day when storage had a non-trivial cost, both in terms of the space and the time expended to store files, the question made sense. And it might still make sense in some cases. But for the majority of cases, there is a better option. That option is versioning. With versioning, every change is always saved, and the user moves easily between versions.

Some companies have seen the light long ago. When I started using IntelliJ a few years ago, I was initially baffled at the lack of a Save button. Then I discovered that it was all done in the background, and that version management meant I never had to worry about saving again. Similarly, most of Google‘s products (such as Gmail) take care of saving for you. To an extent, this is because they’re on the web, and Google wants to make sure that you never lose data in the fragile environment that is the Internet browser. But the same philosophy is at work in Picasa, their desktop application picture manager. There, the Undo button has basically taken over for the Save button. The result is a form of version management.

Full-blown versioning takes a little time and effort to incorporate into a program. However, the ability to maintain drafts goes a long way towards doing the job. When I close a program, I shouldn’t need to make decisions about saving. Instead, the program should maintain drafts of the files I have modified. When I reopen the program, the drafts should reappear.

Unobtrusive mechanisms for maintaining state is what it’s all about. Taken a little further, the principle can be applied to all our interactions with a computer. Booting up, opening and closing programs and files is still done in much the same way as it was 20 years ago. And the way these processes were designed was heavily influenced by constraints that no longer apply. With the increased speed and reduced storage costs of today, software makers have the luxury of designing programs based on how the user naturally thinks. That means never asking the question “Would you like to save your changes?”

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