Fatal errors: losing all your work

Error prevention and recovery: One principle of design we discussed in class was that error prevention is always better than error recovery. But when an error does occur, it should be easy for the user to remedy the situation.

The Good: Google Search

Google Search incorporates this heuristic very well. By providing suggestions as the user types in the text search box, it prevents spelling errors and also possibly prevents the error of users searching for things they don’t mean to type (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Google Autocomplete

Additionally, in the case users do submit a search query that is misspelled or unlikely to be the search query users meant to type in, Google automatically provides search results for the corrected version of the search query.

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Figure 2: Autocorrected search query

The Bad: NYU Medical Tertiary Application (and many other application forms)

I made the same annoying “user error” multiple times while working on NYU’s medical application. The problem was that the system provides no warning that the application “times out” and any unsaved data is deleted. Moreover, even when the system times out, it does not say so immediately. Rather, the login screen with the error message “your session has timed out” appears only after the user clicks “save” or “submit.” This causes unnecessary frustration as users will likely finish the entire application (Figure 3) and have it all deleted (Figure 4) upon clicking “submit” if they haven’t stored it elsewhere.

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Figure 3: Trying to submit after finishing the application


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Figure 4: All data is lost


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Figure 5: Floating warning that appears when the session is about to time out and moves as the user scrolls on the page


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My redesign has a very visible status bar that shows the time remaining until the session times out. In case the session does time out, the system saves a version of the user’s data before logging off so that nothing is lost.

About the author: Sariya Siddiqui

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