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Some software makes a distinction between saving and exporting. Lets take the image processing software GIMP as an example. The save button will only allow to save the project file in the native gimp file format .XCF. If one desires to save the current image in any other format like .png, .jpg etc. one has to use the export button. While I understand the obvious difference between saving a project file and exporting a project file I feel like this distinction makes for a very bad user experience. The number of times I clicked "save" when I really wanted to export my work is depressing and I hear the same from colleague.

Are there any benefits to this distinction for the end user over the simple selection of the desired file format in the save dialog?

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    I don't follow. If you understand the obvious difference between saving a project file and exporting a project why is a UI that makes that distinction bad? – paparazzo Jan 29 '15 at 11:48
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    … and then there is Save as, Save version, Save copy, Publish, Send to and Share as well as Apple’s efforts to abolish the old paradigm to (manually) “save early, save often”. – Crissov Jan 29 '15 at 17:33
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    This was a fairly recent change to The GIMP and it confused a lot of people. – Michael Hampton Jan 29 '15 at 23:06
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    I agree with this being very bad UX. I understand the difference but I always click save and I never want to save in the .xcf format. Literally! – Roman Reiner Jan 30 '15 at 3:49
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    The key difference between "save (as)" and "export" is the one in @NathanMacInnes' answer: it affects whether future "save" operations will use the new filename or the previous one. The fact that different file formats are possible is important, but secondary. Whether this behaviour is an advantage or not depends on how well (or how badly) it fits into the user's workflow. – psmears Jan 30 '15 at 10:33
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Export is often used for file formats which don't support saving your current editing status. Word let's you save .doc, .docx, .odt and so on, but only export .pdf, .html and similar.

Same with gimp: You can save .xcf, but only export .jpg, .png and the same. The reason for this is that with any other file format than .xcf gimp loses data like layers which you need for further editing. When you open your saved file again, you'd expect that you can continue editing as before closing gimp. You can of course import your .jpg, .png, ... files again, but most data is lost (except for some exif data, but that's not what you need for editing).

For some picture formats like .jpg there's even a loss in quality and you don't want to open your HD image project on the next day and find it in low quality.

One a side note, I think it's the same with Photoshop and its .psd format.

The user on the other hand will keep all his editing information by default and will be forced to think about whether his product is finished before he makes it public, sends it to a teacher and so on.

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    What I meant was it's the same with Photoshop with it's own format. Edited it for clearance. – Sebb Jan 29 '15 at 11:17
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    You do - it's just a silent import. If you save, it will ask you to chose a destination for for .xcf file. – Sebb Jan 29 '15 at 13:22
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    From a user's perspective, it's still an asymmetrical relationship. GIMP has Open, Save and Export buttons, but the Import is, as you say, silent. I agree that there are benefits from a workflow perspective between separating export and save, but this example seems to be a bad way of achieving it. – Celos Jan 29 '15 at 13:43
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    Edited it ;) But I used a diffrent wording because yours seemed a bit complicated – Sebb Jan 29 '15 at 14:50
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    When GIMP made that change, it caused a user revolt that lit up the mailing list for several months. But that was primarily due to people being used to "how things used to be" -- so if your program is still in its infancy, all of the above is correct. But if you have a program that has been out for a while and has lots of users, be careful! – Mark Stewart Jan 29 '15 at 21:11
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A "save" function should be expected to yield a file which, if opened later in the editor, will yield one that precisely matches what was saved. An "export" function is appropriate in cases where the file will be target format's best representation of the data, but the target format may not necessarily be capable of holding all of the information in the editor.

A "save" function should be lossless; an "export" function may be lossy, or may produce a file that cannot be read at all by the application created it. Note that sometimes it may be appropriate to use "export" even for file formats which can store all the information that an editor presently supports, if it is expected that future versions of the editor may be able to handle information that those file formats cannot.

An interesting question from a UI perspective is how to handle the case where, despite having features a popular document format can't support, a program ends up being a popular choice for people wanting to edit that document. In some cases, having to explicitly import and export such files could be annoying. I would suggest that it may be helpful for a program to have separate "New..." options for creating a new SuperThing document or a new StandardThing document, and have the editor only allow features which are available in the type of document being edited. If a user opens a StandardThing document and wants to use SuperThing features, the user should be prompted to first "Import current document as SuperThing", which would then create an untitled SuperThing document with content imported from the original. If a user is editing a document which contains SuperThing features and wants to save as StandardThing, the user should be prompted to first "Export current document as StandardThing", which should then create an untitled StandardThing document with content imported from the original.

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    Not necessary "lossy" but just "different". As you said, "save" should be "no change". – J. Dimeo Jan 29 '15 at 15:21
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    Lots of software can expert to PDF, not not load from PDF at ALL. – Ian Jan 29 '15 at 18:12
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    @Ian I can "save" a word processor document in LibreOffice Writer to "Text (*.txt)", or I can "export" it to, among a few others, XHTML. For almost any use of a word processor beyond simply hammering on the keyboard, "saving" to a plain text file would be a lot more lossy than "exporting" to XHTML. Different software, I know, but the same words, which makes it potentially confusing for a user who just wants to use their computer to... oh, I don't know, do stuff? – a CVn Jan 29 '15 at 19:40
  • @MichaelKjörling: If one opens a text file, applies some formatting, hits "save" and then quits, will the program silently exit since it "saved" the file [but not the formatting], will it squawk that it contains formatting that wasn't saved, or would it have balked when trying to apply the formatting in the first place? It's fine to allow a "save" to a file format which could be potentially lossy in cases where the document being edited can be converted losslessly, but irksome to allow it in cases where saving and reopening a document won't yield the original. – supercat Jan 29 '15 at 19:46
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    @MichaelKjörling: I don't like that design. IMHO, the cleanest design is to have each document window keep track of what kind of file it is, limit actions to those applicable to that kind of file, and provide a convenient but explicit means of changing between different kinds of files. For some cases, it may be helpful to allow a program to associate a "boring-format" file with one in its own format, and have a "save" function which writes both [it may be good to keep track of the timestamp of the boring-format file, and only warn if the on-disk file changes unexpectedly]. – supercat Jan 29 '15 at 19:56
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If you Save a file, then continue editing, you will be editing the file you just saved. If you Export, you won't continue editing the file you exported, but the previously saved file. It's a subtle difference because you don't actually edit a file until it's saved/exported, but this is how the user sees it.

  • Yes, this is the key difference: if you do "Save As..." and give a filename, that filename will be used for all future "Save" operations - but if you do "Export..." then future "Save" operations will used the previously saved (or opened) filename. – psmears Jan 30 '15 at 10:29
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This is what GIMP documentation has to say about the distinction (emphasis added):

In former GIMP releases, when you loaded an image in some format, let us say JPG or PNG, the image kept its format and was saved in the same format by Save. With GIMP-2.8, images are loaded, imported, in the XCF format as a new project.

and

When you are finished working with an image, you will want to save the results. [...] Most of the file formats that GIMP can open, can also be used for saving. There is one file format that is special, though: XCF is GIMP's native format, and is useful because it stores everything about an image (well, almost everything; it does not store “undo” information). Thus, the XCF format is especially suitable for saving intermediate results, and for saving images to be re-opened later in GIMP. XCF files are not readable by most other programs that display images, so once you have finished, you will probably also want to export the image in a more widely used format, such as JPEG, PNG, TIFF, etc.

So as @Daniel Zahra said, it is about the way GIMP thinks of the workflow. You only save when you are in progress and only export at the end. And workflows are application specific, for example in Lightroom (3 at least) you don't save anything, there is no save.

Photoshop has its own file format that "saves everything" .psd. I haven't been using newer Photoshop since CS2 but in it .psd files were saved along with other formats.

  • Thanks for the documentation reference. As said, I understand that you save intermediate work and export final work. I just dont get why one would implement both options when allowing all file formats in the saving dialog (with .xcf as default) would do just the same in a user friendly way. I think it's save to assume users get the difference. Might be opinion based though. – paw Jan 29 '15 at 11:20
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    @paw The transformation to "exported" formats is often lossy. I expect saving to be lossless. – CodesInChaos Jan 29 '15 at 11:37
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    But you open XCF, PNG, TIFF, BMP, PCX, PSD, ... files with Gimp. You don't import the non-XCF formats. – a CVn Jan 29 '15 at 12:19
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    I can confirm that users do not get the difference between saving to a format which supports layers, and one which does not. But they heard that png was non-lossy! – Dewi Morgan Jan 29 '15 at 22:46
  • The fact that it should be Import rather than Open is mentioned in the specification for Save and Export. This is one of the few explicit deviations from a strict separation. – Michael Schumacher Oct 18 '15 at 23:44
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Generally, a "save" is going to result in a "flavor" of a common file type, native to the application (e.g., Photoshop should "save" raster images, Excel should "save" spreadsheet documents). On the other hand, an "export" is going to result in a fundementally different file type, that does its best to mimic one native to the application (e.g., Photoshop should "export" vector images, Excel should "export" PDF documents).

Additionally (as mentioned earlier), ususally, with a save, if you open up the file you will see a fairly similar version of the content that you saved (quality and feature support of the chosen file type may affect that). With an export, if you convert to another file type, you may not be able to convert back (e.g., you will not get anything meaningful in Excel if you open a PDF), or the conversion process (usually an "import") will result in some noticable changes to your original content, potentially with a loss of data or "data relationships".

Part of the problem is that, unfortunately, some applications have blurred that line between the two processes. For example, Excel allows you to "save" a text or CSV document, which are NOT spreadsheet formats. Somebody likely made the decision that the loss in formating was not significant enough to put it under "export" and by placing it under "save" you minimize the confusion to the user. Clearly, they were incorrect on that last point. ;)

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I feel that your problem is relating to different software using different terminology. When dealing with a 'Save' I am expecting to save the document while I keep working on it later. When exporting I am ready to deliver the file to someone else.

Exporting is often also used to change the file format of the output file.

I do not think it's about benefits but more about different functionality between exporting and saving. Some application hardly make the difference but I find that that is an application specific deficient not a terminology one.

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This does not seem to be a UX issue so much as an issue of using the right tool for the job.

It sounds like you and your co-worker were provided GIMP, or found it to be recommended for "image editing". GIMP, however, aims to be a professional-level editing program akin to Photoshop. There are many simpler, more basic tools that give you the functionality that you desire if you are looking to open a jpg, adjust colors/crop/rotate etc., and save to overwrite the same jpg file.

The use case of GIMP, however, is more akin to a video-editing tool. Imagine working on a movie. You want to rearrange scenes, change titles, introduce transitions, etc. You would never expect saving to lay the video out to tape (or a compressed video file/DVD/whatever) would you? That would clearly be an export function.

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