in User Interface

You’re idling, lazy user!

Here is an interesting little message I was greeted by while doing my usual multi-tab sweep of news/todo/email/twitter/etc this morning.


What I think is so interesting about this seemingly innocuous little message is how much it tells you about those who designed it (or not, as it were.)  Here are a couple nuggets one might glean:

The 15 minute timeout was likely set with no consideration for UX or the business context

This message appeared because my session at this site had been automatically ended, since I had not clicked on anything during the time allowed for inactivity during a session. For those not familiar with this, there are two reasons why one would want to time out a session:

  • Conserving server resources: every additional user session takes up some resources on the server, so you’d want to conserve by ending sessions where there is no activity.  However, this has become far less of an issue after storage has become cheaper and processors faster.  And even if this were a factor here, timing out after 15 minutes would almost certainly not be necessary.  More likely, it could be set at 1 hour or the like.
  • Security: This is the far more common reason to limit a user session.  If, say, this screen shot were from a banking site or the like, well, I wouldn’t be posting this, because a 15 minute timeout would make sense.  After all, you don’t want to risk someone being able to access your checking account while you had to leave your computer for a couple minutes (maybe having forgotten that the account page was open in a different tab.) But this is no banking site.   There is very little, if any, damage that someone could cause if gaining temporary access to my account here.

In other words, for this business context, a 15 minute timeout makes no sense.  I’m guessing this was set by a developer, possibly without even any discussion with the UX designer, maybe because that person wasn’t even aware of this, on one hand very technical issue, but on the other hand one that can significantly impact user experience. And it is incredibly unlikely that this limitation is due to a need to conserve resources.  A 1 hour timeout would likely  make more sense.

The accusatory tone (“you idled”) reflects inexperience writing for the web

When writing for the web, particularly when writing interface labels and dialog copy, surgical level word choice is critical.  What is so unfortunate is that a lot of interface copy seems to default to accusatory and unnecessarily dramatic (“Warning!”) language.  An experienced author would have been sure to both strike a more empathetical tone, as well as explain why the session had to be ended.  Maybe something like:

You haven’t clicked on anything in the last 30 minutes. To protect the privacy of your personal content, we’ve automatically signed you out.  We apologize for the inconvenience.

Please sign in again

It’s interesting how much a tiny little detail can tell you about the person who designed it.

  1. Anders,

    Great post. Messages like that make me nostalgic for 1999. I think it’s funny that we limit sessions at all, especially when many sites are shifting from maximizing pageviews (impressions) to maximizing time on site. My strategy would be to keep members signed in as long as possible and always try to give them something to do.

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