What Do You Mean by "Cancel?" by Moira Ashleigh

Posted on August 02, 2015 at 9:00 AM

Silver Spotted skipper on Buttonbush Horn Pond, Woburn, MA

Have you ever pressed a "Cancel" button and had the whole window and form disappear? Not just a cleared form, but the whole page, and you end up on a page you have never been on before? Yes? In my opinion that is not optimal usability.

Cancel is an interesting term when used on a button. What could it mean?

It could mean the form is going to be cleared and leave you with an empty form. It could mean nothing happens and the form is still filled in and you stay on the page. It could mean the page with the form disappears and you end up on a page not of your choosing. It could mean you get one of those "are you sure you want to cancel" windows, once, twice, three times or more if it is a disreputable website. I have seen all of these.

I have a piece of software that I use regularly that has the pop-up window asking if I am sure I want to cancel. The two buttons presented to me are "Cancel" and "OK". I don't know how many times I have hit cancel when I needed to hit OK.

So maybe the word Cancel is not the most useful word on a button. Before "Cancel" we used to use "Reset," and you expected the form to clear and reset itself. But that was a fairly geeky word and we seem to have migrated to cancel as a replacement. These two words are not synonyms.

I am not advocating going back to "Reset", because that is not actually any clearer to the user. I would like to suggest we try to put the words on the button that say what the button is going to do. Just like the action button, in Tell It Like It Is, I propose we tell the user what to expect.

If we are going to clear the form we say "Clear Form". If we are going to do nothing at all, we could say "Do not process" or "Do not register" or "Do not upload." Or perhaps even more radical, how about we don't offer a button that doesn't do anything! If we are going to send them on a journey we could say "Close window," at least that gives the user some understanding of what will happen when they click that button.

If we feel we need to add that extra warning window, a device created to keep users from losing their completed work, how about we agree to use the words "Yes" and "No." We are pretty sure what those words mean most of the time.

I have never enjoyed being surprised when attempting to complete a task. In a game it can be fun, but in day-to-day work the goal is to complete the task before the next meeting or deadline. Let's help them do that by sending clear messages with our buttons.

Button mantra: Tell it like it is.

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