Confirmation dialog Groundhog Day: I click OK and it keeps coming back

Yes/No/Cancel culture at its worst

Something for the Weekend "We all know what we're doing today? Good. Do your best!"

With that cheery note, our new project director sweeps out of the 10:00 stand-up meeting and away to… someplace or another, I don't know, wherever it is that project directors go. Project managers can be found everywhere, usually nearby a waste basket overflowing with disposable coffee cups, but project directors? Who can say?

These project directors are a mystery. It's not a job title I'd come across before. They just swan in from time to time, managerial but polite and rather vague, then drift out again with a farewell motto such as "Do your best!" or "You've all done very well!" like Young Mr Grace.

To be honest, I can't even remember the current guy's name. I'd been referring to the previous one as "Joe," as in "Cotton-Eyed Joe" (as in "Where did you come from? Where did you go?"), and I may as well continue until the next Joe replaces him. The rate that we go through these project directors, it feels like we're just prisoners in The Village and every week they announce a new Number Two. His office is probably in a big house at the top of a hill.

"Do your best!" indeed. This latest project director must have done his MBA in Japan where, according to popular culture, everyone tells each other to ganbatte as a kind of passive-aggressive implication that you've spent all your life goofing off until that moment.

As soon the new Number Two is out the room, our grizzled software testing chief hands out the morning's testing scripts and grunts: "Do your worst."

Software testing isn't really my bag but I had a gap in my fantastically busy schedule – about eight weeks – and was persuaded by an ex-colleague to join the testing team as they struggled to meet the looming Alpha deadline. It was only when I turned up on day one that what he meant by "looming" was that the deadline was still looming at them from the past as they'd missed it twice already.

UI design has come a long way since the last time I was contracted to help with user acceptability testing on a bespoke corporate media management system. For a start, we get to see diagrams of the user path so we no longer have to guess what's supposed to happen next before ticking the FAIL box.

Also, our conversations with the developers are very different now to those 10 years ago. Developers have to make things work and this used to take up all their time; the quality of user-facing messages tended to take a back seat. So back then, we'd run back and forth with printed screenshots of their bizarre alert messages and dialog instructions, asking pertinent questions such as "What the fuck is this supposed to mean?" or "Have you heard of full stops?" or "Are you on meth?"

These days, however, we hardly get to speak to the developers at all as they spend days at a time locked into deep meetings with UI designers to discuss whether YES should go on the left and NO on the right, or vice-versa.

The most fun we've had on this project was when someone renamed a few folders without asking and every single graphic and icon throughout the system vanished. OK, that's not particularly funny, but it was the next day when the culprit tried to cover his tracks by renaming them back again but got some of them the wrong way around. Every error message was stamped with a smiley emoticon, like it was taking the piss; every "Task completed successfully" message was accompanied by a skull and crossbones.

Well, it made me laugh. It's a dull job, OK?

Dialog messages seem a lot more graphicky and a lot less texty than a decade ago, and it's probably for the best. I still remember one message on a system I was UAT-ing that read as follows:

The link is no longer linked. To update your links, open the Links palette and select the unlinked link that you wish to relink to a new link.

The dude who'd written this marvel simply could not understand what I didn't like about it until I suggested he read it out aloud to the rest of the team, replacing each mention of "link" with "shwing!"

Updating the text in dialog messages in that kind of corporate system is easy: you just edit the text in a script file, refresh and it's done. I am told that this was not always the case. In the 1980s, an old school friend on whose floor I slept in my first two weeks in London was already working in tech in the City and told me a story of seemingly innocuous woe concerning a casually phrased error message.

One of her colleagues had coded the message – only ever to be seen with a crash resulting from an extremely unlikely sequence of unfortunate events – to read: "Whoa! Heavy shit!"

Sure enough, it did and the calls started coming in and they weren't friendly. The customer obviously wanted not only for the problem to be fixed, but also for the error message to be changed. This apparently required recompiling and reinstalling on-site, which is a bit more expensive than editing a script file and tapping Save.

Not that it's a panacea, mind. There was one particularly wordy and annoying confirmation message on a system I was user-testing that read:

This will effect all the files in the current location. Do you wish to continue?

I popped round to the devs' room and asked them to change "effect" to "affect." Tap-tippity-tap, all done. Hurrah.

The following week they'd updated something unrelated and gave us a new x.x.x.1 release to test. Only by chance did I stumble upon that confirmation message. The spelling had reverted from "affect" to "effect." I took it round and asked for it to be corrected; tappity-tappity, fixed again. Thanks, bye.

It happened the following week as well. And indeed, with every minor release, it seemed the current dialog scripts would be routinely wiped and reverted to those written a year earlier, evidently by an illiterate 14-year-old on work experience. After requesting the word to be corrected on 11 occasions, I sneaked into the development team room early one morning before they got in and used the biggest dry marker I could find to write on their whiteboard in gigantic letters:

AFFECT = VERB

EFFECT = NOUN

Of course, I had to hang around all day and all evening so I could sneak back in at night when they'd gone home so I could amend it as follows:

AFFECT = VERB

EFFECT = NOUN (YES it CAN be a VERB but ONLY if you are LORD FUCKING GRANTHAM)

A few years after I left that project, I went back to see some mates still working there. For old times' sake, I leaned over a shoulder and clicked a few buttons. Sure enough, that message had reverted yet again to "effect." Since then, I refer to the place as Downton Abbey.

So much has changed since then, that's for certain. Right, back to work. A click here and tap here… oh no, that can't be right. Better cancel it. A confirmation message appears on my screen:

"Would you like to cancel?"

Below it are two buttons:

OK

…and…

CANCEL

Oh well, I can see at least someone has done their worst – literally. Where's that extra-large dry marker?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He has seen plenty of funny error message screenshots shared on the internet. He has also read the WikiHow page on "How to make a fake error message in Windows." More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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