Usability problems downloading from web apps

November 7, 2007 ⋅ 9 Comments »

My post yesterday on the upcoming changes in the Firefox download manager reminded me of a little story I wanted to tell. A few weeks ago, I said that uploading and downloading are seams in the web experience, and this story provides a good example of what I mean by that.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my room (probably at my computer), when I heard my roommate call me nervously from upstairs.

“Pat….?? Can you help me?”

I’d heard that tone of voice before.

“Is it about about your computer?”

“Um, yeah.”

So I went upstairs to help. Here was the problem: last night, she opened a Microsoft Word attachment from GMail, spent an hour or two editing it, saved it, and closed Word. Now, she was looking for the file, and it was nowhere to be found.

This has happened to me before, and I’ll bet that it’s happened to most people. When you download a file from GMail, you are prompted to either save or open the file. If you choose to save, the file will be downloaded to the desktop or your downloads folder (assuming you’re using Firefox). If you choose to open, the file will be downloaded to a temporary folder and opened from there. The problem is, if you choose to open the file, there’s nothing stopping you from merrily making all the changes you want and saving them back to the temporary file. Which is almost certainly not what you want to do.

It’s a tough problem, and probably not something that can be fixed in the web browser alone. But as we start relying more and more on web applications, I think it’s becoming an important problem to solve.

So what’s the right answer? First of all, I wonder if you should even be asked to choose between saving or opening the file. If you’ve clicked on it, don’t you probably want to open it? Once you’ve opened it, if you want to save it somewhere, then you can make the decision. This is the way that it works with PDFs if you’ve got Acrobat Reader installed.

Second, you shouldn’t be allowed to make changes to temporary files. If you are viewing a Microsoft Word document and then you try to save changes to it, it should then prompt you for a place to save the file, instead of silently saving the file to a temporary location.

Those are two possibilities that I can think of off the top of my head that might help fix this problem. Comments? Thoughts?

Oh, and just so I don’t leave you hanging — I helped my roommate rescue her changes from temp directory.


  1. e - November 8, 2007:

    That is a tough problem. I was going to say that "Open" should explicitly save to your download location and then open the file - the user always has to "Save", but they can choose to open.

    Then I started thinking about the stuff that I download. A .torrent file isn't the same as an OpenOffice document. I don't want .torrent turds clutting up my download folder, but I don't want to have the same moment of terror your roommate experienced. Ephemeral file types shouldn't be treated the same way as long lived files. So we have to ask how a filetype is declared as ephemeral. I'd be happy to add a bit to the file associations in the browser.

    Tangent: I take issue with your comment "If you’ve clicked on it, don’t you probably want to open it?" I occasionally buy stock photography from iStockPhoto. When I download the zip file the first thing I want to do is copy it to offsite storage. It cost me money, so I delay my gratification for a few moments to do the scp. Since I'm using Windows, I don't want any other processes touching the archive, because they might prevent my SSH client from reading the file.

  2. Patrick - November 8, 2007:


    Yeah, I know what you mean. Certain kinds of files are (likely) ephemeral, and those shouldn't be treated the same way as a PDF or Microsoft Word document. But it's kind of a hack to explicitly specify which category each file type falls into, especially since you could almost always come up with some kind of exception.

    I still think that defaulting to "open" is the best way to do it. Then the semantics of following a link are always the same: the linked resource is opened (possibly in an external viewer). I do agree with you that there are certain situations where you don't specifically want to save the file and NOT open it, but I think that those are in the minority. And for those cases, there is a different action: right-click and "Save Link As". Anyways, having a file open shouldn't prevent scp from reading it, should it? Although I know that Window isn't nearly as sensible as Unix about some of those things (e.g. deleting a file that is still open).

  3. Mr Lizard - November 8, 2007:

    How about something similar to this:

    |_________ File Download____________| | | | You clicked on a link that | | downloads a file. What would | | you like to do? | | | | [Download & Open] [Just download]| |____________________________________|

  4. Mr Lizard - November 8, 2007:

    Sorry, that post came out awful!

    Here's a mock-up of what I was getting at:

    Although perhaps the emphases should be placed on 'Download & Open'

  5. Patrick - November 9, 2007:

    Mr. Lizard:

    Your mockup is interesting -- it gets rid of the hidden consequences of the open vs. save choice, and makes the choice a bit easier. I still think it would be nice if you didn't have to click through a dialog every time you download a file though. Your solution also assumes that it's okay for all files to be downloaded to the download folder (often the desktop)...but maybe that's not a bad thing.

  6. Mr Lizard - November 10, 2007:

    Just a suggestion- and I'm no programmer so I've no idea if this would even work.

    You click a link for, say, a Word doc.

    Let's assume for a second the user wants to edit it right away, so it gets downloaded to a temp folder and opens.

    What if only Firefox had write access to that temp folder. So, if the user made changes to the document, and hit 'save', Word would be forced to ask the user where to save the file.

    I'm not even sure if this could be done, but it seems that if we are going to resolve this issue without requiring any kind of click-thru when downloading files of this type, then we have to force the external app, i.e. Word, to do some of the leg-work and bother the user with a save dialogue.


  7. Mr Lizard - November 11, 2007:

    Another possible way to avoid hassling the user with a click-thru dialogue each time would be to have an option for firefox to remember the user's preference for handling certain file types

    An example:

    This way, the user gets a degree of control over where the file is saved, and won't get prompted again in the future.

    (Apologies for the awful mock up)

  8. Patrick - November 12, 2007:

    What if only Firefox had write access to that temp folder. So, if the user made changes to the document, and hit ’save’, Word would be forced to ask the user where to save the file.

    Yeah, I think that's actually a good idea. The file could be marked as read-only by Firefox, which should solve the problem.

    Another possible way to avoid hassling the user with a click-thru dialogue each time would be to have an option for firefox to remember the user’s preference for handling certain file types

    I think this is the case already, but I'm not sure that's the best idea, because then you have two different kinds of behaviours happening for non-obvious reasons (the user might not remember the decision that they made).

  9. - Firefox 3 Beta 1: Usability impressions - November 20, 2007:

    [...] I’m happy to report that they’ve fixed the problem I wrote about last time. Previously, when a user selected to open (rather than save) a downloaded file, it was possible to save changes to the open document. That was a Bad Thing, because it the file was actually in a temp directory, and it meant that you could easily lose the changes that you’ve made. Now they’ve made downloaded files read-only, so when you try to save your changes, you will be prompted to save them to a different file in a more permanent location. [...]