A shared frustration among pretty much all software designers is how to communicate important issues to users when they simply refuse to read even the shortest amount of text.

The short and sweet of my scenario, is that one feature of my software is that it can generate a configuration file for another piece of software (To let the user use its UI to build the configuration file instead of writing it out by hand). If a configuration file already exists there, it is overwritten.

In some cases the user may have their own configuration file there, so before the user is allowed to turn this feature on - a full-screen modal popup is displayed with the words "Data overwrite warning!" in massive bold letters and a huge warning triangle. Followed by a marginally more detailed explanation saying that the data will be permanently overwritten and will not be saved.

It's extremely hard to miss, and the user has to acknowledge the dialog before they are allowed to continue.

Yet still, I get a number of users (who speak perfectly competent English) complain that they didn't know the data was going to be overwritten. When quizzed about why they didn't read the notice they usually say they just accepted it without reading it at all.

My other example of this issue is on one page of my wiki - http://wiki.phonicuk.com/Common-McMyAdmin-Problems.ashx#Startup_Stall__Server_has_started_but_is_not_yet_accepting_players_2

The red text can’t be missed to the point that it's really hard not to read it. Yet still some users refuse to do it, despite communicating with no ambiguity that it is an absolute requirement.

Why does this happen, and what can I do about it?

  • Seeing it, and actually comprehending it are different things.
    – JonW
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 16:17

6 Answers 6


You really have but one option: accept that your users are human, and likely not to read your warning. Making it bigger or more annoying won't help you force people to read your warning, it will just make your software more annoying to use.

Instead, you should deal with the real issue: there is no undo! In my view, that is the usability issue here.

I'd recommend this wonderful article on this issue: Never use a warning when you mean undo.

Edit: As for your second issue: if restarting is so crucial, then why do you allow people to ignore doing it? You could perhaps block using your application at all if there hasn't been a restart, or even make your application perform the restart for the user (and then auto-starting again, of course) if the user ignored the need to restart before starting.

  • 2
    It isn't always possible to undo. Imagine you were doing something from which there is no recovering (such as permanently erasing a storage medium) - How you make sure the user understands and acknowledges the consequences? Or dealing with users who decide to 'skip' steps from a list of instructions which causes them to perform the steps incorrectly.
    – PhonicUK
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:44
  • 1
    Not always, but very, very often it is. Even if it is much harder to program. In your case, you could keep a backup copy of the configuration file, and offer to restore it if needed.
    – André
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:46
  • For the restart - this isn't something the application is in control of. It's getting the user to follow a set of steps to fix an issue that prevents the software functioning properly.
    – PhonicUK
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 11:20
  • I still maintain that if it is your software modifying (overwriting) the configuration file, it would be logical if your program could also undo that action. It is not for nothing that you warn against it, right? That means that it is not a harmless operation, and thus it should be undoable.
    – André
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 11:30
  • For that case yes that what I'll do, make sure that it keeps a backup. Although how it should handle the scenario where it's unable to do so is another question. It operates in quite a tight environment sometimes, and may not have permission. The software itself runs on remote servers and is administered via its web interface.
    – PhonicUK
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 11:47

Agree that it is better to have an undo mechanism. If that is not possible in your case, including informative text in the button may increase chances that your user would read it since they have to click it (although it would very useful to actually run a usability test for your scenario). If you could customize the message and show extra text if existing configuration exists it will be better since then you will not make your UI more complicated for those who don't need it. (e.g. if Jack doesn't have an existing config don't include any overwrite info)

Here is an example. Critical word "Overwrite" is the first word so users are more likely to notice it.

enter image description here

Another option is ask you users to select something before they can proceed with any critical/destructive action. In this example, user has to select "Overwrite" checkbox to proceed.

enter image description here


André is perfectly right, always try to add an undo. In case of removing files, don't delete them permanently. Move them to trash(from where they can be restored), or rename them to config.old.ini or something similar. Find ways to provide for recovery from errors.

Most often warning does not fit in to the users current action schema. If I'm creating a new configuration. Many users focus is on creating a new configuration file. Not worrying about what will happen with the old one. So the warning does not fit into their current state of mind and is therefore dismissed. It's not part of the current action they're trying to accomplish.

So if there are really no way to provide fore recovery, try to get the warning to fit into their current action. So in your case it might be more effective to say "Use new configuration instead of the old one [Yes] [No]".

In the case of the MineCraft server, recovery becomes hard since you don't control the whole experience. You can't restart your users computers. So then the feedback you provides becomes more important. Provide it in a context where the user is most susceptible to the information. Which in this case probably is when the server is stalling. An other solution would be to write a small script which uninstalls and restart the computer.


If you want to force the user to read it (and surely annoy the users) you can do the following:

Make a Inputbox and only proceed, when the users has typed a summary from your message.
Your message here (about overwriting the config)
To proceed type the following in the textbox:
I understand, that going further will overwrite my configuration and the old config will be lost.

If he can't use copy & paste, he has to read the text (understanding is something completly different) to type the last sentence and to proceed.
The users will probably threaten to kill you for that (at least after the second question) but you asked for a technical solution.

  • 1
    The article I pointed to above explains the problems with this approach: it makes people focus on solving a riddle, instead of on the actual task they are performing. Result: it doesn't do what it is supposed to do, it distracts the users, and it takes time from the users. All three are bad.
    – André
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 15:38
  • I did something similar to this in a deployment script. If the user selects a Production deployment (as opposed to Test) the script prompts them to type the entire word "Production" in order to proceed. I have not gotten any complaints, just a bit of amusement, and no one has ever deployed to production by accident
    – JoelFan
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 15:41

Studies have shown that users perceive images better than text... maybe show a flash animation of the destruction happening and also maybe convey the emotion more by showing a horrified facial expression. Something similar to this is those highway signs on curves that show a truck in the process of tipping over... much more effective than the word "Curve" or a curve-shaped arrow

  • "Studies have shown that users perceive images better than text. - Can you cite any of those studies? Also, I'd disagree with your suggestion of 'show a flash animation'. Assuming you do mean Adobe Flash Firstly, it's very bad accessibility to display important content in such a manner, and secondly Flash isn't really an appropriate technology to be using in 2012, especially for important content such as this regardless of the accessibility issues.
    – JonW
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 16:15
  • 1
    I wasn't fixated on a certain technology... Flash is just an example
    – JoelFan
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 16:44

use a second dialogue box & "captcha" ( it's annoying to us all but it forces users to complete a prescribed/ desired action) stating what the user is about to do/ undo & the minus points of doing so - ENSURE THIS WANRNING IS A MAX OF 2 SENTENCES LONG to ensure they actually bother to read it

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.