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I don't like seeing the word 'you' in the message twice. Examples:

  1. Are you sure you want to delete this item?
  2. Are you sure you want to continue?
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2  
Not sure that not liking seeing the word you twice is a good enough reason to want to change the dialogue text, but whatever floats your boat :) –  Rahul Aug 23 '10 at 17:41
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You should try to avoid "are you sure" dialogs if you can. People tend to click YES or OK out of habit, so it's not much of a safeguard against doing the wrong thing. It's much better to skip the confirmation, but provide an undo. Aza Raskin puts it well: Never Use A Warning When You Mean Undo –  Patrick McElhaney Aug 23 '10 at 19:02
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@Patrick: put it in an answer. –  pate Aug 23 '10 at 19:25
    
- Delete this item? YES NO - Are you sure? YES NO - Do you understand the implications of deleting this? YES NO - Coke or Pepsi? YES NO –  Mechaflash Sep 22 '11 at 15:56
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8 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Part of the reason that people skip over long messages is due to reading speed.

Assume for the sake of discussion someone with an average reading speed - around 200 words per minute.(*)

If you use just 20 words in a dialog, you're asking that user to spend 6 seconds reading and understanding what you wrote.

While that doesn't sound like much, a six second imposed pause when you're trying to get something done can seem to be an awfully long time.

(*) And don't make the mistake of assuming that low reading speed means low intelligence.

So, three suggestions for you, all aimed at maximum clarity with minimum fuss.

  1. Be as concise as possible
  2. Identify the item at risk
  3. Name your buttons for the actions

Here is a simple deletion dialog:

Poor

Let's reduce the number of words to the minimum to make it easier to read:

Better

Now, let's identify the item at risk, and label the buttons for the action:

alt text

Much better - easier to read and clearer.

Another example - a continuation dialog.

Confirmation dialog

Simplify wording.

Better Continue dialog

Again, let's identify what's going on and label the buttons for the actions.

Best Continue Dialog

A definite improvement.

Here's a final thought. Avoid negatives, especially double negatives. Some native English speakers find double negatives tricky, and many who learn English as a second language find them confusing (especially if their native tongue uses double-negatives for emphasis instead of inversion).

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I think you might have double-posted the Best image. –  Virtuosi Media Aug 23 '10 at 22:55
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Or, you can just read the Windows UX guidelines msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa511258.aspx where they actually write about this :) –  Tomáš Kafka Aug 27 '10 at 17:38
    
@Tomas - Excellent link. –  Bevan Aug 27 '10 at 20:42
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I believe you are actually setting some bad examples: 1. It is "OK", not "Ok". 2. If you ask a yes/no question, the possible answers must be yes or no, certainly not OK and Cancel. 3. If you identify the buttons for the action, you must do this with both buttons, not just with one (i.e. Delete/Keep not Delete/Cancel) Apart from that I also believe any sentence must at least contain a subject and a verb, but that is personal. –  Bart Gijssens Sep 28 '11 at 12:38
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@BaGi - I think you may have misread my answer: I'm showing a progression from poor to better. Having a Yes/No question with Ok/Cancel as the buttons is certainly poor, but is all too commom, and this is what I was pointing out. To address your points ... Where there is a simple inverse, using it for the Cancel button makes sense - so Delete/Keep is better than Delete/Cancel, but this isn't always possible - what's the inverse of Post? Post/Don't Post seems clumsy. And, I think all my examples are full sentences. To take the last one: "Continue":verb; "Transaction processing": subject. –  Bevan Sep 28 '11 at 19:44
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Delete this item?

Continue?

Straight to the point.

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What you've got is grammatically correct, but I take your point.

You could try breaking the message into two phrases:

This item will be deleted, are you sure?

This moves the important part of the question to the front where it is (hopefully) more likely to be read.

I'd also tend to avoid messages for actions that can be undone and reduce the number of undoable actions to an absolute minimum.

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3  
And, of course, replace this item with the actual name of the item! –  Jared Harley Aug 24 '10 at 3:09
    
@Jared - yes - make it explicit what you are going to do. –  ChrisF Aug 24 '10 at 9:38
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For critical messages you want to be as clear as possible and make sure the user reads the message.

Messages like

By clicking here you agree that ...

Are you sure you want to ....

Get lost on the user, The user reads it as yada, yada, yada, whatever... and clicks yes without looking.

To get the user to read the message it has to be in the right order.

  • Name the action that will happen
  • then the warning
  • then the question
  • then the action to take.

You are about to submit you application, This action can not be un-done, Do you want to continue, Click yes to continue or click cancel

This is a bit long but if you need the user to read the message this is the safest way to go.

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1  
Your message, while better than yadayada, still has a problem - why am I clicking "yes" to continue, instead of a "continue" button? Something like this would be better: Your application is ready to submit. If you continue, this can not be undone. Would you like to continue? [Continue] [Cancel] –  Jared Harley Aug 24 '10 at 3:08
    
@Jared, Good point, sound better and would be shorter. –  Sruly Aug 24 '10 at 6:05
    
How about a punchier version? "Submit your application? This can not be undone. [Continue] [Cancel]" (Actually, in many cases saying that the action cannot be undone is not helpful anyway.) –  Bennett McElwee Aug 31 '10 at 2:50
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I always make a point of showing the user which item is being deleted (especially since the dialogue might obscure the item in question, but also because seeing identifiable text in the dialogue will call attention):

Delete "your favourite item"?

You can also inject a little humour here and there, depending on what kind of app you're making:

Surely you don't want to continue without saving? [Yes I do, leave me alone] [Oh right, thanks for reminding me]

If you user test it you'll notice that humorous messages get noticed a bit more frequently simply because they sort of stand out from the crowd of generic messages and (if they're actually cute enough) get a smile on the face of the user. What more could you want?

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Or you could just follow my rule of thumb: All dialog buttons must be labeled "D'oh!", even if there are multiple buttons. –  Virtuosi Media Aug 23 '10 at 17:46
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@VirtuosiMedia If there are two buttons, only one should be labelled "D'oh!" The other should be labelled "Why you little…!" –  Patrick McElhaney Aug 23 '10 at 21:12
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"... 14 users clicked Do'h, 5 users clicked Nut, and one user pressed the M key repeatedly." - Jakob Nielsen –  Patrick McElhaney Aug 23 '10 at 21:50
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"...All 20 users expressed surprise at the ensuing red emergency lights, sirens, and warnings to evacuate before the nuclear meltdown. Those that survived later mentioned that they were torn between fleeing for safety and seeing what was in the fridge. Shaken by the experience, they seemed to wonder if they had made the right choice." –  Virtuosi Media Aug 23 '10 at 22:49
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It would be more humorous if it said "Shirley" instead of "Surely". –  Glen Lipka Aug 23 '10 at 23:27
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A critical thing to remember is that people ignore "Are you sure" messages. You have to force them to think about the decision. Here is one of my favorities.

alt text

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These become irritating if you are having to delete a lot of things ("leads", in this case), but this works well when you're taking a "no going back" action (of course, you could just program so that there isn't any type of action too) –  Jared Harley Aug 24 '10 at 3:15
    
Similarly, World of Warcraft requires you to type, in all-caps, the word "DELETE" into a field when you try to delete a character from your account (and even then, you can get it back if you really want). –  Rahul Aug 24 '10 at 9:19
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I'm not sure what the "can not undo" checkbox means. If I don't check it, will I be able to undo? Or will the "No going back" button not activate until I check it? This dialogue almost feels like a form itself, including error handling and UI element state management. If I make a mistake in this dialogue will it pop up a dialogue telling me what I did wrong? ;) –  Rahul Aug 24 '10 at 9:21
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@Rahul: Agree with you. The concept here is nice (if you can't support Undo) but the labeling is really weird. Even the "No Going Back" button. I think Can Not Undo is sort of like an "I agree to the terms" kind of confirmation, but that's just my guess –  cbosco Aug 24 '10 at 18:23
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This is just absolutely awful. –  Bennett McElwee Aug 31 '10 at 2:47
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It's better to not have such dialogs, instead, implement undo functionality.

The dialog is useless 95% of the time, so why force it on people? Are you trying to help people? or are you trying to place the blame on the user "hey, you confirmed that you wanted to delete that important item, don't blame me!".

Guess what, people learn to ignore these dialogs, they always subconsciously confirm whatever action they just did.

So that's the wrong approach to solve the problem.

The problem here is: user action can have undesired effects if done by mistake.

A better solution for that problem would be to allow the user to rollback his change.

If you allowed them to undo deletions, you get two good things:

  • You won't have to annoy the user with useless dialogs.
  • Users can recover from unintentional deletions.

Implementing undo is a lot harder than showing a confirmation box.

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The Apple Human Interface Guidelines for Mac OS X have a good deal to say about message boxes (alert panels).

Button names should correspond to the action the user performs when pressing the button—for example, Erase, Save, or Delete. The rightmost button in the dialog, the action button, is the button that confirms the alert message text. The action button is usually, but not always, the default button. (Note that in Cocoa methods, the rightmost button is always referred to as the default button even though it might not be.) For more information, see “Dismissing Dialogs.”

The problem with the Windows Message Box API is that it doesn't allow you to actually specify the names of the buttons you want, instead requiring you to either roll your own message box or use the built in Yes/No/OK/Cancel buttons.

For some more reading, here's an interesting article talking about the problems with message boxes in general: Why Message Boxes Are Evil.

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The problems in the Windows Message Box API are addressed by the Task Dialog API. (New in Windows Vista) –  MSalters May 23 '11 at 12:58
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