Undo — our all empowering ability?

With modern technology and interaction design techniques, we have greater control over more actions than ever before. The immediate example is writing this post. I can undo any letter, word, sentence or paragraph I write. What’s more, drafts and revision history are being auto-saved in the background. All my actions are reversible and restorable. I only need to focus on writing. There is no risk — only return.

Welcome to the power of Undo.

‘Mistake proofing’ is a key element of good design. In his book Designing the User Interface, renowned expert Ben Shneiderman outlined eight golden rules of interface design. Of this, one was permitting easy reversal of actions. A related design concept it that of ‘forgiveness’ — which to define concisely, centers on making actions reversible and recoverable.

Design should help people avoid errors and minimize the negative consequences of errors when they do occur — Universal Principles of Design (Lidwell, Holden & Butler, 2003)

The ideal is to avoid errors in the first place. The classic design example are power plugs that match sockets. There is only one way — the correct way — and therefore no possibility of error. But if we cannot avoid from occurring, the next best option is the ability to undo.

I visualize our ability to undo along a spectrum of reversible, recoverable and ‘non-undoable’ actions. I categorize some popular examples using this ‘prism’ and reflect on the wider interplay between empowerment and undo-ability.


Reversals are classic connotations of Undo. Through word (Undo), command (Ctrl+Z) or icon ( ↶), we can instantly recognize a facility to reverse the immediately preceding action(s). A related cousin, the backspace button, also helps reverse actions by allowing us to erase erroneous entries. Money-back guarantee is another example of reversals. We can buy something, and provided it is within the stipulated store policy or law, can also return it - reversing the transaction in terms of products and money. The rewind button on a cassette player is the nostalgic reminder of (literally) reversing the current state of play. Sometimes, physical products come with corresponding ‘antidote’ products. Pencils with eraser caps are the classic example. The specially designed eraser can ‘undo’ the imprint left by the graphite tip.

Reversals are not always complete. Sometimes only partial reversals are allowed. For example, some software, like default Windows Notepad only allows one undo action.

Reversals do come full circle though. The ultimate convenience is provided by the Redo button, which allows us to undo the undo.

Whether full or partial, undo or redo, reversals empower us with the comfort that our action(s) can be reversed with no consequence.


Recovery is another type of undo, except that it usually takes the proverbial ‘scenic route’. A literal example is when we enter the wrong on-ramp while driving. Most modern motorways have another off-ramp immediately close-by to allow us to re-enter the motorway flow. The route is a bit longer than if we’d not have strayed at all but the end result is a seamless ‘undo’ of our mistake, albeit with a tiny ‘penalty’ to pay in terms of time and distance. Auto-save is another ubiquitous example. I write this post fearlessly knowing that Medium is automatically saving a draft and revision history.

Like reversals, sometimes only a partial recovery is possible. Good design anticipates the need for maintenance. The cleaning kit that comes with your new sofa or floorboard, is an example of a product that is supplied to undo the effects of wear and tear. It will never make the sofa or floor new again, but will keep it as close as possible to the original.

Recovery options enable us to negate an undesirable outcome with a relatively ‘negligible’ penalty.

The Non-Undoable

Moving on from its roots in mistake-proofing, the ability to undo is now a superpower in its own right. When we can undo an action or transaction, we conquer risk and operate with near invincibility. We can control change and hence feel empowered.

This empowerment however is limited to human-product interfaces. It does not transfer to the (most important) realm of ‘real-life’ interpersonal human interactions.

There are two things that cannot be taken back- the sped arrow and the spoken word. ― Jane Casey, The Missing

In real life interpersonal situations, there is no Undo button. Undoing and redoing carry a penalty in terms of time and effort; and uncertainty in terms of outcome.

Anything regrettable that we have done cannot be undone. At best, we can attempt a whole raft of R words — reconciliation, redress, recompense, restitution — and get asymptotically close to reversal or recovery; but never actually achieve it.


The real empowerment

The power to undo is convenient. It has increasingly become an ‘expected’ feature of designs that we love. Many times, we wish that we had an Undo button in real life. A question often seen in essays (and indeed beauty pageants even) is — if you could change one event in history, what would that be? If we substitute the word change for undo, we can paraphrase the question as — if you could undo one event in life, what would that be?

I’ve often asked myself this question. For mundane events, I found an easy answer. For example, just recently when stepping outside the house, I saw the clouds clearing. But I carried an umbrella regardless because the forecast was for possible showers. It did not rain in the end. Yes, I should not have carried an umbrella when I saw the clouds clearing. I wish I could ‘undo’ the burden of having carried it all day while not using it. For anything even slightly more complex or non-trivial, I found no clear answer. Reversibility is not a panacea. How many times have we purchased something, returned it and then debated if what we had in the first place was good. Indeed, a research shows that reversible decisions direct attention to aspects of the decision that decrease satisfaction with the chosen option. Our current reality is a very complex culmination of our and others actions. If we reverse just one thing, where do we stop? In real (real) life, the first power of Undo (reversibility) opens a can of worms. The second power of Undo (recoverability) has a better chance. Instead of wishing for a past event to be reversed entirely, it is better to take corrective action and redeem both our present and future. Ironically, zero power of Undo ironically provides the best option. It is said that a ‘stitch in time saves nine’. So best to focus on the first stitch instead of desiring reversibility or recovery later on.

True empowerment is about discretion — about understanding the actions that cannot be undone, and counterbalancing these with forethought.

Undo is power. But getting it right first time is liberation.

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