You should have a way to purge history

August 11, 2010

Dear application programmers: I understand that you like to provide a history of recent documents, for whatever reason. But in today's environment, if you store any sort of history like this you should and in fact really must provide some way of purging that history. Ideally you would also provide a way to turn off keeping this history, too.

This does not have to be a prominent feature or element of your UI; Firefox puts their version of this in a preferences pane and a menu entry, and I don't think you necessarily need the menu entry. But it is long since time that your application had some way to do this in its GUI, since there are all sorts of reasons why users may not be comfortable having the history of their actions lying around for other people to see. Or they just may dislike seeing a pointless list of scratch files and other impedimenta in menus or the like, which is certainly the case with me and PDF viewers.

(You might think that this is an issue for browsers, not word processors or PDF viewers or the like, but not so fast. For example, your users may well have issues of business confidentiality if they do things like give their memos informative file names.)

The recent irritating example of this is evince, which wins a special bonus prize for not merely storing the full paths or URLs of many PDFs that you've viewed but also apparently re-accessing them when it converts metadata during some of its version upgrades. Hopefully I do not need to explain why randomly accessing URLs out of the blue is a very bad idea.

(Evince stores this information in .gnome2/evince/ev-metadata.xml, for those who want to do something about it. Notice how evince, unlike other Gnome programs, cleverly doesn't use gconf to store this information where a reasonably knowledgeable user might actually be able to find it.)

As an aside, my personal opinion is that if you implement such a 'recent documents' feature you should check and not list any local file that no longer exists. (Please do not check URLs to see if they still exist; see above.)

Written on 11 August 2010.
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Last modified: Wed Aug 11 00:15:00 2010
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