I asked this question about file deletion on Security.SE and got a lot of bamboozle about how technically, blah blah blah. One person said that this is really a UX issue, so I decided to ask here:

If a button says "Delete", should it not actually delete the file so that it cannot be recovered? I don't really care if that is costly, or slow, or requires a trip to the moon or whatever. The point is, if we call it delete, we should not then require "education" and indoctrination of the user to change their mind about what the word means. Right?

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    Soft deletion will appear as "actual deleting" for the end user. In todays world with "the clouds" and all, having a "destroy file (irreversible)" button would probably make more sense...
    – JimL
    Jan 15, 2016 at 18:28
  • @JimL I haven't ever used cloud storage, partly for the reason you explained. If I did, I would probably overwrite my files in-place several times over a period of time before "soft-deleting". No matter what a remote server says, I cannot trust it to do anything securely, so the best option is not to put important things there.
    – user67695
    Jan 15, 2016 at 18:33
  • Without going too far off topic. Many cloud services offer versioned file storage, so in some cases that actually wouldn't help. If you're looking for online backup there are services that encrypt the files on your computer before uploading them. The better ones even let you change keys/encryption algos etc. sorry for OT
    – JimL
    Jan 15, 2016 at 18:35
  • On topic.. I hope most people today are aware the pictures/files you upload to various social media, snapchat, etc don't necessarily get deleted when you think they are. Most users seem to be very satisfied as long as the file disappears from their view after deletion.
    – JimL
    Jan 15, 2016 at 18:38
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    I guess when the ball rolls under the couch, it is gone. My dog was smarter than that.
    – user67695
    Jan 15, 2016 at 18:40

7 Answers 7


The answer is simple actually: Yes, if a button says delete, it should delete. 

A button should do what it claims to do. As you said in the comments, the word delete is used inaccurately too often and actually means that the subject is going to be destroyed so that it doesn't exist anymore and therefore can't be recovered. From an UX perspective however this can lead to frustration as people dont know what they can expect; can they safely remove it and recover it when they made a mistake, or do they have to think twice before they destroy it? A better label avoids ambiguity, for example use a phrase like: Delete this object permanently. And a confirmation box should explain that it can't be undone.

  • The word delete only became "ambiguous" after the failure to actually destroy deleted things made them recoverable (including by harmful people). The wrong development of technology created the problem with the word. If I say incinerate, no one wonders if it is recoverable.
    – user67695
    Jan 19, 2016 at 1:19
  • For me delete means exactly what it means to you, and you are right that the word is used inaccurately in a lot of places. To come back to my answer the button should indeed delete/destroy without recovery as it claims to do. From an UX perspective however this is not what people want or even expect and avoiding ambiguous labels can at least prevent them to discover it is unrecoverable after they deleted it.
    – jazZRo
    Jan 19, 2016 at 7:05

This could be solved linguistically:


You don't want it anymore, but if you accidentally drop something in the bin, you can still pick it out again. This is how many web-mail systems and cloud storage providers already work.

  • I use the word "trash" IRL for several things: something in the bin in my house. Something in the kitchen bin that is now covered with coffee grounds and fruit residue. Something I threw in to the big dumpster for the apartment complex. Something in the dumpster with a built in automatic compactor at a friend's complex, which in no way would you want to crawl inside to retrieve something. In all cases, I am the thing at risk in retrieving it, not the object, and it may or may not be usable in any of those places. The word 'Trash' should respect the idea of "no longer wanted or wantable".
    – user67695
    Aug 23, 2016 at 18:22
  • @nocomprende If you put something in the bin in your house, you're the one taking it out for a more permanent 'deletion'. Just like how the trashbin on your desktop doesn't automatically empty itself (by default settings). If you put it in the trash folder on gmail or hotmail, an external solution, it'll automatically, periodically get deleted, just like the dumpster with the trash compactor. The wide application of the term is precisely what makes it work in this scenario. Neither digital nor real-life 'trash' as black and white as 'delete' is. Aug 27, 2016 at 10:06
  • @nocomprende And personally, I think a comparison to a waste-paper basket is more apt than a bin with coffee grounds and fruit mush. Aug 27, 2016 at 10:14
  • I am sure that the word 'trash' is used in many everyday contexts, as with "love" or "snow". So, it should not be used in a computer context where people expect some definite thing (which is invisible to them) to happen. The less visible the machinery, the more we need to "say what we mean and mean what we say", making up special terms as necessary, rather than relying on "common sense", which evolved for a million years outside the context of computers. I want to know what will happen when I do something with a computer, not leave it up to a consortium. They need to label things clearly.
    – user67695
    Aug 28, 2016 at 16:01
  • @nocomprende After looking at some of your other responses, it seems like you came here just looking for wide confirmation of your own views. I'm not going to waste more time explaining. Sep 2, 2016 at 20:32

If a button says "Delete", should it not actually delete the file so that it cannot be recovered?

Answer depends on whether the data that you are deleting belongs to the user (if it is consumer app and decision to buy & use the app belongs to the user) or an organization (if it is an enterprise app and user is told to use this app to run this org's business).

If the data belongs to the user only, then nuke it since that is what the user wants. Give a pop-up to take his/her confirmation to cover the scenario of accidental delete-click. Generally consumer apps are free to use and no customer support is promised up front.

If the data belongs to an organization who is paying you for this app and space on server, then go for a soft delete. Keep a data-retention policy for 60 days (as per your contract with the org) so that data can be recovered if required. Usually in such case (like SAAS model) customer support is paid for and expected and such queries (data recovery) could be made to you, so be ready for it.

Hope this helps.

  • I would say that if the data belongs to an organization, then the "delete" concept is a privilege, just like who can see or update what, so the user would never even be shown a delete button if they could not actually do it. Otherwise, you are just misleading the user. And, no, more "edumication" is not the answer.
    – user67695
    Jan 15, 2016 at 18:59
  • @nocomprende Otherwise, you are just misleading the user. For user it is deleted and he/she won't have access to it unless an exception ticket/enquiry is raised (within the retention period as per contract). Jan 15, 2016 at 19:13
  • @nocomprende also what is edumication? Jan 15, 2016 at 19:13
  • edumication is a word that someone I know used who was raised on an "indian reservation" about 50 years ago in the US, which was his term for "compulsory brainwashing". I would not show the word "Delete" to a user unless it meant it fully. There is no need for subtlety and interpretation, follow the KISS principle and other good UX principles.
    – user67695
    Jan 15, 2016 at 19:15
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    @nocomprende I would not show the word "Delete" to a user unless it meant it fully you clearly haven't built/developed/designed enterprise apps (especially for emerging markets) before!! If your contract doesn't talk about retention policy, then don't retain data, else do. It is as simple as that. Now try to find a big client (in US, Europe or Asia) who doesn't want this!! Jan 15, 2016 at 19:20

Virtually every modern operating system defaults "deleting" actions to the trash, to the point that when a trash can is not used the dialogue often has caveats about how this action "can't be undone" or "do you want to permanently delete this from your computer?"

There is enough inertia with the concept of "deleted things are moved to a quarantine location for future permanent deletion" that its reasonable to expect users to think in those terms.

The interface just needs to be clear enough that it is not confusing with which design you have selected.

"I just deleted a bunch of stuff, where is all my free space?"

"I just deleted this [sensitive file] and now I'm finding out its been sitting around in the trash for two weeks before noticing."

Or on the other hand, "I didn't mean to do that and now I lost something really important!" Or "I changed my mind but now it is too late!"

A well designed UI should make it clear how deleting functions work.

  • I am imagining a little isinglass window on a blazing furnace.
    – user67695
    Aug 23, 2016 at 18:17

Delete is weirdly ambiguous from the backend perspective it's true. I'd say the word delete is fine generally, but yes it does not at all seem final. The two tiered process of trash, empty trash is such a common convention now. Maybe, if it's a real delete, just go directly to calling it 'empty trash' from the get go (that's mostly a joke).

If you want to distinguish between hiding and deleting, the 'archive' concept works too.

The amount of dire prompting is directly related to the severity of losing whatever it is. If the file is important and hard to replicate, I'd say amp up the seriousness of the communication. If it's trivial, it doesn't matter.


"we should not then require "education" and indoctrination of the user to change their mind about what the word means. Right?"


We should not educate or indoctrinate the users. Your application is not the place to do it.

Distinguish between the metaphor and action. Trash and Archive are Metaphors just like Delete. You are not actually "deleting", just like you are not "archiving" or "trashing". The Delete action is taking the file to the trash folder. It could have done something different to "delete" the file (make it hidden, permanently delete it, etc.) but this is how they choose to carry it.

You would only like to change it if you think it is a bad metaphor. Meaning, it is no longer (or never) reflected the action behind it. Is 'Delete' a bad metaphor? Probably not. If only for the time it is with us and that it is already rooted in the minds of our users.

So, back to your question, don't try to educate your users. Sometimes, giving them what they are familiar with is the best they can get.


One of the UX 101 principles is to always allow users to recover easily from mistakes. Therefore, I'd never irrevocably delete anything. Put it in trash or provide an Undo, but don't ever immolate anything. People make mistakes. (They even make mistakes on those annoying "Are you sure you want to..." confirmations.)

  • OK, so change "Delete" to "Securely store this against any possible future attacks, but still let me recover it any time I want". I guess that is what computers should have done all along, right?
    – user67695
    Feb 1, 2016 at 19:40
  • I'm just saying that you need to provide a method for people to recover from errors. Users don't care how you do that. (In most cases, though, there's a time limit. Gmail gives me an undo for a short period of time. The iOS Photos app deletes photos from "Recently Deleted" after some amount of time.) Feb 1, 2016 at 20:42

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