Save Save As

A Golden Rule of interaction design is that if you change an interface convention, the replacement had damn well be better than the convention you replaced. Demonstrably better. By this standard, OS Lion’s “Save As” replacement “Save a Version” fails. Epic Fail, in fact.

In Ye Olden Days of GUI (Apple’s Lisa and the Xerox Star), “Save” used to be “Save and Put Away” (Xerox Star) or (as an option with Save and Put Away) “Save and Continue” (Apple Lisa). “Save and Continue eventually just became “Save” while “Save and Put Away” vanished, probably once RAM and memory allowed for multiple documents to be open at the same time without processor issues. “Save As” seems to have begun in the 1980s as “Save a Copy as,” and eventually some applications had all three: Save, Save As, and Save a Copy as. (What the difference between Save As and Save a Copy As are unclear to me.) Eventually, as people understood the Save As paradigm and with the broad adoption of the Undo action, “Save a Copy as” has mostly vanished. You can still occasionally see “Revert to Saved” in file menus.

In any case, the mental model of Save As has been fairly stable for at least 30 years now. You change the document, then you give it a new name. Apple’s new model seems to be the reverse: I’m going to change this document, so I need to Duplicate it, then change it. Old versions inexplicably lock, although I’m at a loss for when and why. (At least I think this is how it works: the mental model makes no sense to me.) Ostensibly, this is because Apple has an autosave that let’s you go back to previous versions. They thought somehow this would obviate the need for Save As.

But this is not how most people work (or, more precisely, how we’ve been trained to work over the last 30 years). This change breaks the mental model hard and replaces it not with anything better, but with a paradigm that is very difficult to understand (and poorly executed to boot). Most people don’t need the previous version of their document open at the same time as the altered version. Versioning is what programmers do, not what normal people do. When I (infrequently) need the earlier version of a document, I’ll manually open it. When I initiate a “Save As” I’m explicitly saying “This is a new thing, made from the previous thing. It’s a separate entity, deliberately established by me, not a “Duplicate.” I don’t want to “Save a Version,” I’m really making a new version, often one that involves putting this new version into a different folder. With Save a Version, I’m ending up with all these weird copies of documents that are difficult to determine which one is the most recent. Is it the “copy?” I don’t know.

Here’s a test, interaction designers. If you can’t easily diagram the logic of a feature, no way in hell are users going to figure out the mental model of it, unless you provide some easy means of making a “false” model that nonetheless allows users to figure out what is going on. This feature can’t be diagrammed easily (I tried) and the terminology around it doesn’t provide clarity.

This is the first time in a long time I’ve felt something that makes sense only for programmers has made it into an Apple UI. There’s no way Steve Jobs signed off on this change. It’s either too complicated, executed badly, or explained poorly—or all three—and those are not attributes I expect from Apple design.

5 thoughts on “Save Save As

  1. Easy: They’re getting rid of “Save” as a thing novices need to do, ever.

    Versioning should be in the file system. People shouldn’t lose data if they’ve forgotten to “save” before closing (or, they select the wrong option in a dialog they didn’t read or thought was from a different application).

    You admit novices don’t need to go back to previous versions of docs. They they won’t. Then versioning is for advanced users who, honestly, WOULD benefit from versioning at the OS level. And Duplicate pretty much equals Save A Copy.

    The problem is simply switching costs for the user, and Apple usually ignores those if they think the benefits are worth it, and they’ve got the success of workflows on iOS to back them on this one.

    If there’s one bad point to all of this, it’s this transition period where some-to-most of your apps haven’t been updated for this. You can’t take advantage of this switch when Office ’11 still forces you to Cmd-S constantly.

  2. I use “Save As” for a completely different purpose: to show me where my file lives on my computer. This is something that I learned on Windows before migrating over to a Mac a decade ago, but worked quite well in OSX until the Lion release. Today in TextEdit, I was flabbergasted that I couldn’t figure out how to view the path to my open file without renaming it or leaving the app and doing a search for it. [I have since figured out that you can right-click on the small icon next to the title of the document in the titlebar to get the path –not very intuitive!].

    • Easy way to see where your file is:

      Command click on the title.

      The icon next to the title is actually a proxy for the icon in the finder, so you can, if you wish, use it to drag the file somewhere else (move), or to view it in another app (by dragging the icon to another app’s icon)

  3. Some thoughts:

    • It is indeed a new-ish paradigm. So re-purposing old File menu commands with existing mental models doesn’t make sense.
    • Also bear in mind that the APIs for versioning are not forced upon an application. It’s up to the developer whether or not to use them. That means there needs to be two obviously different sets of File menu commands. One that involves versioning, and one that doesn’t. Otherwise the user won’t have a clue when an app supports it.
    • Versioning, I would argue, is actually quite common. It’s just that most people do it through informal methods (like appending “-V2” to file names) that require a lot of mental effort to keep track of things.
    • (What the difference between Save As and Save a Copy As are unclear to me.)

      This difference is related to Duplicate. Say you have “File-A” open and have made a bunch of changes. Save As effectively means “take the current state of File-A and let me save it as File-B which is to be opened, returning File-A to its last saved state and closing it.” Whereas Save a Copy As means “take the current state of File-A, duplicate it into a new file which I will name but not open, and keep File-A in its current state.” Save As destroys the changes to File-A. Save a Copy As does not. Duplicate is much like the latter in that the changes to the first file are still present, but could be undone. But an important difference is the copy hasn’t actually been saved. It’s opened as an usaved copy which may or may not be continued as a fork from the first document. Duplicate is actually giving you broader workflow options than either Save As or Save a Copy As.

  4. IIRC, “Save a Copy As…” did just that: saved the state of the current document to a file, but did not switch to it. “Save As…” by way of contrast, saved the copy, closed the active document, and kept the copy open.

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