Users can’t make errors.

I was formatting a Microsoft Word document the other day. I use Word's styles as much as possible: I teaches 'em, so I uses 'em. To format the title paragraph, I decided to create a style called...Title.

Now I know there's already a built-in style named Title, but I didn't feel like digging around for it. When I tried to enter Title as the name of my style, Word spat back this error message.

Image an error message here because I've lost the original image file.

This is exactly the sort of thing that drives me nuts about software. I wanted to do something entirely reasonable -- to my way of thinking -- and rather than let me, or at least guide me toward an acceptable compromise, the program spouted some nonsense that my action was in error.

User's can't make errors. Oh, they can make truly horrific mistakes, just not errors. To see the difference, let's equip our user with another tool, a hammer. The user can smash windows, thumbs, and delicate wood surfaces with the hammer -- all mistakes -- but at no point does the user take a swing at a nail only to be halted in mid-whack by the hammer-generated error: "This nail has already been struck or has been reserved for striking by Microsoft� Hammer�."

So what should Word have done when I entered "Title" as the name of my style? I can think of at least three things:

  • Let me call it Title, replacing whatever previous definition with that name exists.
  • Let me call it Title and deactivate or rename the built-in definition in such a way that I can summon it back into existence later if I so choose.
  • Let me call it Title but make it clear that I am now changing the existing built-in style rather than creating a new one from scratch.

None of my suggestions don't let me call the style Title. If that's a mistake, so be it, but Word should accommodate my mistakes. If it must, Word could alert me to the fact that I may be venturing in an unwise direction, preferably by any mechanism other than a modal message box.

Word already accommodates a great many user mistakes through the wonderful Undo feature -- I'd be willing to shell out plenty for Microsoft� Hammer� if it came with Undo -- so why should the Great Title Style Naming episode be any different?

Because (cue violins) it's hard to write programs that don't allow users to make errors. Much harder.

Tough! Microsoft's got some of the best programmers in the world down there in Redmond. If anyone -- especially anyone working in a corporation that spends billions on R&D -- can correct this state of affairs, I'm confident one of the 'serfs can. C'mon guys and gals, we don't need another equivalent-to-tacking-on-a-clock feature: fix the software so that it's impossible for users to make errors. And let them back out of a mistake -- any mistake.