We want to make it easy for people to perform task in an application, but we also want to prevent them from accidentally deleting something. Where is the middle ground between these two opposing concepts when it comes to deleting?

Or asked in another way, how easy should I make it for people to perform an action that is irreversible?

I'm referring more to something like deleting something like a folder with a lot of content in it on a mobile application (hence no recycle bin).

  • 2
    I always quiver a bit when I see buttons that are going to do an irreversible action right away - I almost feel I need some time to 'live with' the fact that the content has gone with the comfort of knowing I can get them back if I want to. Can you list or summarise the items along with an age span so that they can see a) the number of items b) over how long those items have been accumulated. Indicate it's irreversible. Is it not possible to schedule the deletion for some later time (or eg next time they restart), with the ability to recover before that if they realise in time? Sep 19, 2011 at 15:48
  • I've been trying to work through options, but each has some negative side effect. I could start a "delete countdown" whereby the final action of deleting has to wait for 24 hours, but that would just be very annoying to people who are intentionally doing it.
    – JohnGB
    Sep 19, 2011 at 15:51
  • yeah that's very true especially if they are doing it to free up space for example. ok - so it does have to be done right away. Sep 19, 2011 at 15:57
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    I personally like the Google Mail approach. I can undo a delete action, until I perform another action. But to echo some of the other answers here, it truly depends on how potentially critical the deleted content is. If it could be a catastrophic action, undo should be an option for a month, or even a year. Sep 19, 2011 at 21:49
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    I'd like to comment with this tangentially related post ux.stackexchange.com/questions/10038/…
    – colmcq
    Sep 20, 2011 at 13:56

6 Answers 6


You can avoid the automatic clicking of users in different manners. Apart from confirmation dialogs, here are some options less intrusive but also effective:

  • One option is to fake reversibility by delaying the actual action. You can delay the real deletion of content and show a "confirmation" for the deletion to the user with the undo option. Later contents can be deleted. Gmail follows a similar approach to "undo" mails once they are sent:

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  • Another option is to disable initially the dangerous action and activate it after a short period of time. Mozilla Firefox takes this approach when installing plugins:

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    I particularly like Gmail's solution as I've frequently thought "Oh crap!" after sending an email, the reversible grace period feels a bit more like a fix only for the users with the problem, rather than the extra confirmations which require all users to jump through extra hoops.
    – Ben Brocka
    Sep 20, 2011 at 18:47
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It depends (of course!) on how often deletion is an action that is likely to occur.

I obviously agree with the sentiment that tasks need to be made easy to perform - that's a given.

However, deleting a lot of content should perhaps be slightly less easy - provided it happens infrequently. If deleting stuff happens every five minutes then it should be as easy as any other task - and presumably it's more likely to relate only to something that happened in the last five minutes and therefore possibly more easily reproduced.

If deletion happens say once a month, then I don't think there's an issue in having to press a couple more buttons or in having to go through a confirmation stage which shows that you are deleting a large number of items that have been accumulated over a long time span.

I'm sure users will understand the critical nature of the task and appreciate the (slightly) extra difficulty in the task.

Somewhere in between every 5 mins and every month (or more) is a sliding scale, and you need to consider where your app and the deletion task sits, in terms of critical nature and barrier to accidental deletion along with frequency of action.

I'm not saying make it too difficult or onerous, just a noticeable notch up from your normal 'easy' tasks - just to give (and to force) the user a little time to think about what they're doing, as opposed to thoughtlessly or instinctively clicking an 'OK' button before they realise what they're committing to.

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    +1 for the frequency of deletion. There is nothing worse than having to delete 20 items in a list and being asked to confirm 20 times to do it.
    – sscirrus
    Sep 19, 2011 at 22:59
  • You could also have an option for the user to override the confirmation. You could also have an undo option, basically move the data over to another location (create your own recycle bin), once they exit the app then actually delete the files.
    – Matt
    Sep 20, 2011 at 5:56

I came across this post on the 37signals blog. It's an interesting idea to have a confirmation dialogue box but do something like this to make people think about it first.

enter image description here

Edit: Rick Mans suggested a solution today that I thought was quite elegant. Remove the content, but send the person an email at the end of the session saying that x has been deleted and that if it was a mistake, they can follow a given link to restore the deleted items.

No added UI needed and it solves the issue of someone accidentally deleting something that has taken them a long time to create.

  • Marking as the answer for the suggestion given in the Edit (from someone external to ux.so) as it is the one that solves my particular problem in the most elegant way.
    – JohnGB
    Sep 22, 2011 at 11:58

Sometimes this involves a learning process, How much intuitive/explanatory is your app interface when the user is deleting an item that you doesn't care much?.

Maybe this can help, note that the affirmative action is in the left. You must to make a big differentiation between "you can delete when you want" and "you can delete if you are aware the implications"

enter image description here

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    The buttons should be descriptive: "delete permanently" and "cancel" rather than yes / no. ux.stackexchange.com/questions/9946/… Sep 20, 2011 at 2:12
  • I believe "Cancel" is the opposite of "OK". To improve this further you should use: Delete permanently / Do not delete. OR Delete permanently / Keep it. Sep 20, 2011 at 7:15

If you want to make it easy for people to delete stuff then you must make it equally easy for it to be recovered because people will delete stuff by accident.

Coming from the other direction - if it's really hard to recover deleted content then it should be hard for someone to accidentally delete it. By this I mean that there should be all the warning messages and confirmation dialogs discussed in other answers so that you can be (relatively) sure that the user meant to delete.


Depends on the context of what is being deleted. But standard 'Are you sure' deletion message is pretty standard. People expect this, and on mobile are used to going through such steps - but just 1 level of confirmation. At the end of the day you have to allow users to be grown up about it. If they accidentally delete something after a confirmation step it's a bit of a #facepalm moment, but they move on. If possible a time-limited archive recovery option is obviously preferable.

  • "I'm referring more to something like deleting something like a folder with a lot of content in it on a mobile application (hence no recycle bin)." Sep 19, 2011 at 16:24
  • Confirmation dialogs are next to worthless - there are plenty of studies that show most users just click the "go away" button without taking the time to think. We geeks are pratically the only peple who take the time to read a confirmation dialog.
    – Bevan
    Sep 20, 2011 at 4:21
  • @Bevan: Could you share an example of such study? I did not know this in fact. Sep 20, 2011 at 7:16
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    @BaGI: Jeff Raskin, "The Humane Interface". Also: asktog.com/columns/069ScottAdamsMeltdown.html . Dialog boxes such as this will not work because of habituation. They shift the train of thought; they do not force you to rethink the deletion, but they force you to think how to make the dialog go away, hence, confirm deletion :) The "oh sh*t" lucidity moment comes only afterwards.
    – Erion
    Sep 20, 2011 at 8:48
  • @BaGi - In addition to Erion's suggestions, have a read of About Face 3.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design. I have the previous edition, About Face 2.0, and it talks about habituation as well.
    – Bevan
    Sep 20, 2011 at 20:53

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