The Case Against Undo

Paul Buchheit (via Google Blogoscoped) is calling for more use of “Undo” in software - particularly for GMail to add it to the “Send” command. He says, “this will require adding a short delivery delay, like 10 sec, but it's worth it.” Philip Lessen of GB basically supports this assertion, though he adds:
...there’s still the problem that we’re not used to an Undo option suddenly disappearing, which would be what happens after the 10 seconds... maybe there needs to be a countdown ticker as well, or is all this just shifting the same problem around?
I get where they’re coming from. We have, in many ways, been trained that you can always take back your actions on computers - at least when it comes to word processing, browsing websites (though not Flash-based ones!) and using other applications like Photoshop (though only a specified number of steps - so take snapshots!). But one action that there has never (to my knowledge) been an undo associated with is email, and adding it now overcomplicates a commonly understood action.

If implemented in the manner Paul advocates, an “Undo” action adds time to a medium already slower than other forms of messaging that are becoming widely used (IM, SMS, etc.). 10 seconds is a long time on the web. I, for one, do not want to have my email queued for any amount of time to compensate for others acting without thinking and sending messages unintentionally.

And why 10 seconds, anyway? Why not 5 minutes, while we’re at it? You know, just in case you click send, go make a cup of coffee, and while waiting for the water to boil realize that you actually just sent that angry email about your boss as “Reply All” instead of just “Reply to your secret girlfriend in Accounting.”

Just because it’s possible to take something back on the web doesn’t mean that it is a good interaction model, and online communication is one place where I’d argue that it would actually be a negative presence - reinforcing problematic behaviors like carelessness and lack-of-attention. You can’t take back what you say on the phone or in person. Why should we expect to be able to do so online?

That said, I think a feature checking for an attachment whenever you write “attached” or similar (like this Greasemonkey script does) could be a welcome addition.

Ultimately, technology can’t make up for human error - nor should it be expected to. If you screw up and mis-send a message, or forget the attachment, there is always a solution:

Apologize, re-send, and, if necessary, deal with the consequences of your recklessness and haste.

You know, just like in the “Real World.”