Annoying Prompts Blog

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Annoying prompts

One of my personal hates is prompts that suddenly appear and make a simple action into a head scratching moment. In my job, I get the opportunity to look at many bespoke software systems that other bespoke software companies have created and I always cringe when I see the prompt overload. The prompt overload is a great indication to the general quality level of the bespoke software system and its user interface.

I am not against the concept of a prompt, if it is used in the correct situations it can make you think before you commit an action. However, if that prompt is overused then it loses all its potential usefulness and the person using the bespoke software will simply ignore the prompt and continue. If the action is so important that a prompt must be shown, bespoke developers must ensure that the prompt message is not misleading or confusing. I have seen prompt messages that contain double negatives or a prompt message that ask multiple questions each with different answers.

When a prompt suddenly appears, the person using the bespoke system can go into a “shock” mode, as they were not expecting the prompt (especially if the prompt contains a red danger icon). Once in this “shock” mode, it can become very difficult for the person to read and understand a large amount of text. It is important that prompts always display a short, simple and “to the point” message.

It is common on bespoke website applications to have a prompt that asks a “yes / no” question but then the website will display a prompt with “okay / cancel” buttons (sometimes the prompt message will then reference “yes / no” buttons that don’t exist). I have also seen bespoke software systems that have the sequence of the prompt answers different for different prompt messages (e.g. “yes / no” and “no / yes”). Some bespoke developers may say that this forces the person using the bespoke software system to click on the correct button, but I feel that the person using the bespoke system expects the button to be in the same position and will click in that position before they realise that it is the wrong button.

The prompt text should always be written in the positive (e.g. Are you sure?), writing a negative prompt (e.g. Do you NOT want to continue?) forces the person to respond with a positive for a negative action. If the task is so critical that a prompt must be used, then the bespoke software system should also provide an “undo” feature so the person using the bespoke software system can easily revert the system back to the correct state.

At one time, Microsoft Windows was overloaded with prompts and some of those prompts didn’t make any sense, even to technical people. Today, Microsoft has dramatically reduced the number of prompts along with providing the person using Windows with the ability to “undo”. This allows the person to use Windows unimpeded but with the capability of reverting the system back to the correct state if required.

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