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When Gmail first brought out the Undo feature for sending emails it was a very interesting way to address the typical user behaviour of sending something on an impulse (or just not checking things properly) and allowing the user to undo an action or transaction the same way that you can undo on Microsoft Word or any typical desktop application.

I am curious to know if there are other similar design patterns for less familiar actions/transactions, and if the user ends up adjusting to these design patterns and so we still end up with many emails sent in mistake just because the perception is that we can undo those actions. Another unintended consequence is that when Gmail tries to predict whether an attachment is missing from the email and prompts the users, it often gets ignored because it incorrectly asks users for missing attachments because it has picked up a wrong context. When a user actually forgets an attachment but ignores the prompts by experience, the design pattern introduced to prevent the problem ends up contributing to it.

My question is: have design patterns used for reversing actions/transaction been shown to reduce the number of mistakes generated by the users (which is the purpose of allowing an 'undo') or simply increased the confidence level of users so that they end up creating more mistakes (although some of them are caught by the undo actions).

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    As much as I want to reply a yes/no, I really think it depends on the context where you apply the reversing action. If it is applied in a process that is used very often by the user it might create the second scenario you mentioned (create more confidence and end up creating more mistakes) - because the response becomes automated for the user. On the other hand, when you have actions that are rarely performed (e.g. delete a contact) the undo action might pop up and catch the user´s attention and bring awareness into the termination action the are going to complete. – UX Research Apr 26 '17 at 16:51
  • @UXResearch perhaps you can comment or answer in the context of Gmail's Undo feature? – Michael Lai May 17 '17 at 14:50
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+50

Undo increases user’s feeling of being in control. They feel more confident to use your applications when they know that they can undo mistakes.

Many internet users lack confidence when interacting with the web. It is our job as UX Designers to try and reassure them and provide a safety net when things go wrong.

Which abides to one of the 10 Heuristics:

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.


Situations we should use it:

  • Whenever there is an opportunity to lose work, the program should allow undo actions.

  • The more costly it is to lose data, the more important it is to provide undo.

  • Never use a warning when you mean undo.

Benefits:

Reduces fear of some bad things happening:
The majority of people do not like computers. It is so easy for us to forget that, as we live and breath computers everyday.

Reduces complexity:
The ability to undo creates an impression of simplicity even in the most complex applications

Builds confidence:
The "what the heck" attitude is largely about confidence. A confidence in the power of undo to do its magic, is what allows us to play and experiment with an application. Through experimentation and play we learn and with knowledge comes a confidence in our own abilities. That is the power of undo.

The importance of Undo

Edit

Referring to your comments; here are a few scenarios on Gmail's undo feature:

Every one of us has experienced an email blunder at some point whether it was accidentally hitting reply to all, sending a message to the wrong person or forgetting to attach a file. For example, I sent a cover letter to the wrong recruiter back when I was in college -- which is likely one of the reasons why I did not hear back from that company. Now Gmail has rolled out a feature that lets you recall a message within 30 seconds of it being sent. Gmail originally launched the "Undo Send" feature in March 2009, but it was hidden as an experimental "Labs" feature.

No more accidentally sending that killer turkey burger recipe to your boss when it was intended for your aunt. How embarrassing! Was your strongly worded email to the neighborhood association about Mr. Vanlandingham’s obnoxious mailbox colors a bit too strongly worded? Just click undo and delete all those what the fudges and holy shoots. Problem solved!

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    +1 A well thought out answer to the question - can you comment on how your answer applies specifically to Gmail's Undo feature? – Michael Lai May 17 '17 at 14:51
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Great question. In a 2015 linkedIn post it was postulated that some practices tend to "dumb down" users in the span of decades. Excerpt...

Millennials' attention is span is 8 seconds, down from 12 a decade ago. (Microsoft 2015)

Other research has investigated the rate of spelling mistakes. It seems the advent of automatic spell checkers and services like grammar.ly has made us more careless about spelling. So, there is no reason to believe that and "undo" button would not render users more careless (carefree). enter image description here Source: A Taste for Corpora: In Honour of Sylviane Granger edited by Fanny Meunier, Gaëtanelle Gilquin, Magali Paquot

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    Interesting! By allowing users to make errors (in an effort to increase the ease of use) we are training generations that it's ok to make mistakes which in turn teaches them to just go ahead and make more mistakes, in turn requiring an increase in tools and functions that prevent, automatically correct or revert errors. – Tom.K May 17 '17 at 13:42
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    @Tom.K I have often wondered if it is possible to design your way around certain human behaviours, such as our tendency to modify our behaviour based on something that is introduced into our routine or thought process. It seems like solutions that don't really target the root cause of the issue ends up creating other problems. – Michael Lai May 17 '17 at 14:53
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    +1 I like the reference to spelling errors, and I wonder if it is applicable to Gmail's Undo feature where it is about a preventable user mistake/error that we can really help to improve by being more forgiving or if it just makes them more careless. – Michael Lai May 17 '17 at 14:54
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Regarding the specific context of the 'undo' feature in gmail, one of the objectives is "Preventing User Errors: Avoiding Unconscious Slips" -https://www.nngroup.com/articles/slips/

"Summary: Users are often distracted from the task at hand, so prevent unconscious errors by offering suggestions, utilizing constraints, and being flexible."

Following up on that, based on the amount of emails users send on a daily basis habits are created. Confidence increases too, and once in a while that causes the user to be sloppy or careless. And due to the fact that there are different types of emails (replies, forward, with/without attachments) there is room for error or slips.

So regardless the option to "undo" the user will probably have a tendency to have some sort of "slip" at some point. The fact that the system is flexible and allows users to "undo" would not necessarily promote errors but let users be more comfortable with the platform because they know they can "take it back". There will probably be some users that will be too confident, still that would not cause a significant increase in the number of mistakes besides the slips/errors that would have happened regardless.

"One of the 10 Usability Heuristics advises that it’s important to communicate errors to users gracefully, actionably, and clearly. However, it’s even better to prevent users from making errors in the first place"

" Slips are common errors that happen when users do not pay full attention to a task or have small memory lapses. Preventing errors of this type is largely a matter of reducing burdens on users and guiding them when precision is required."

  • +1 Nice explanation and good referencing as well. – Michael Lai May 17 '17 at 21:24
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Disclaimer: I never worked on email software but have similar experience from eCommerce. Maybe it's helpful.

Why does 'undo' exist?

Sites offer 'undo' or ask "Are you sure to delete xyz?" because users might perform an action accidentally. For the same reason eCommerce or payment apps do have a 'confirm' page to review the transaction before sending it.

Evidence:

I have insight into quantitative data from two major eCommerce sites.

  • The undo function to delete an item from the cart was used in about 10% of the transactions. For one app I was involved in introducing the functionality and it increased the conversion rate (and decreased site abundance) significantly.
  • For one of the site I witnessed the introduction of some sort of undo for users who just finished the checkout. While there was a fear that it will harm sales the opposite was true. By giving users the option to cancel their order right after checkout the number of customer care contacts was reduced, because users could perform changes to their order independently. Most users re-ordered right away and just added or deleted one item from the previous order.

The question – deconstructed:

have design patterns [...] shown to reduce the number of mistakes generated by the users [?]

What is a mistake? Users put items into a cart and then go to cart or even proceed to checkout. If they want to delete items the site could a) just let them delete or b) ask them if they're sure to delete or c) let them delete but offer to undo. Does doing something and then having second thoughts right after qualify as a mistake?

Conclusion:

or simply increased the confidence level [...]

Yes. My impression (call it opinion, but formed by the insights quoted above) is: Users get used to 'undo' functions. It creates a feeling of confidence and control. These are elements of a great experience. Creating a great experience is ultimately our goal as designers.

I subsequently think that, over time, the experience suffers in sites/apps that don't offer undo, and instead either bother users with nag screens (are you sure?) or frustrate them because they accidentally/prematurely performed an action and want to revert/change it. I guess that we will see undo more and more because it will turn into a hygiene factor as more and more sites offer it.

Kudos to the others answering – helpful and interesting information and I learned a lot in this thread!

  • +1 A very solid answer and great to see you draw from real experiences. There are different definitions for the mistakes and errors that you are talking about (e.g. slips vs. mistakes), but in general I think there are many dimensions to the behaviour and as you said the value of the discussions from this question is what I am trying to add to the community. – Michael Lai May 19 '17 at 22:04
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I will quote some relevant piece of information/thought from this paper by Gregory D Abowd & Alan. Titled - Giving undo attention.

The principle of intent: Undo is the user's intention, not a system function.An undo button is then seen as an action which aims to satisfy that intention. However, the system will not always be able to act so as to perform exactly the intent of the user.

Another on proportionate effort:

We must ensure that commands that are easy to do are easy to undo.


This seems reasonable as if we think about it - Reversing an action is not a system's suggestion, but a user's very own 'occasional' intent. Also, we can safely conclude that sending an email is a different type of activity when compared to activities like spelling checks/digital image corrections. It's different both as it is non-continuous in nature and arguably demands more thought value (and hence more significant). Hence the comparisons to other UNDO's in the digital world could be spared.

This makes me pose a question - Why is Gmail highlighting the UNDO feature through the notification every time I send an email? It could very well lie in the ribbon/left menu etc but more in a static position, allowing the user to reach for it when needed, vs prompting me every time of it. Sending an email is among GMAIL's flagship facilities - and should be treated accordingly. Making the UNDO action popup every time makes it look very insignificant, and can provoke a sense in the user that sending a false email might be okay. Assuming the UNDO button being somewhere else (menu item of sorts), still serves the good purpose, but makes the user reach for it when needed.

Another point which I would like to make is the COPY. Calling it "UNDO" creates a mental model of the 'email sending action' similar to any action that we might undo/redo in a word file for example. Wouldn't it be better to call it "RECALL" or something more relevant of the action it does? Careful copy might also help to establish the weight behind that action.

Since the UNDO feature is carved out use case of a 'bug' or system delay in sending emails, it could very well be restructured to aid the mental model of users. Say as a suggestion, the email once sent, a preloader type facility somewhere in the UI runs for 10 odd seconds (as per setting), and sends the email. If needed, the user can reach out and pause it, make edits and continue the sending process.

To conclude: Sending an email, although in digital world through a button click, is a significant action and reversing it should also be treated accordingly. Agreed, that the user needs to be in control but we should be careful and responsible in defining about how a user accesses those controls, as the larger goal is to make the user more efficient and not just about making the product more glorious. Both not being proportional in my limited understanding.

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