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Adventures in Managing Application Data

When companies unleash new software on the world, expediency often trumps user-friendliness and efficiency. Ed Tittel shares some war stories and says dealing with accumulated data should be easier.

Poor app design makes it difficult to delete old data.Among its various provisions, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) includes the interesting requirement that companies and organizations that store data about users or customers must be ready, willing, and able to delete all data about individuals upon request. Shoot! If only it were that easy to deal with the data that piles up in many applications simply as a consequence of using them.

 

I’d like to make an impassioned plea, in fact, to UI designers everywhere that they put in the time, effort, and testing required to making it easy for users to manage (especially delete, clean up, or archive) older data that piles up over time. I have three examples I’d like to offer based on recent painful experience. Please feel free to chime in with your own comments or e-mails.

 

Case 1: Your Google Voice Is About to Expire

 

I signed up for a Google Voice account and associated phone number back in 2009. I haven’t used it much in the past couple of years, so this morning I found an email in my inbox warning me that if I didn’t visit that account in the next 30 days, it would be terminated and closed out.

 

Quite naturally, I jumped into the account, only to find it loaded up with old voicemail messages and call history information. Alas, the so-called “New Voice” interface insists that users delete or archive the data it stores — call history, voicemails, and text messages — on a one-at-a-time basis.

 

With hundreds of items in each category that I no longer wanted or needed, I knew there had to be a faster, more efficient way to clean out the dross. And indeed there is: If you click the vertical ellipsis in the left-hand toolbar in Google Voice, you’ll find that Legacy Google Voice is an available option.

 

If you select that option, then you are shown a checkbox scheme for items you wish to manage (call history, text messages, and voicemails). This lets you dispose of them a page at a time, rather than one at a time. It ended up taking me 5 minutes to clear out the whole shebang, whereas it could’ve been an hour or more to do them one by one.

 

My profound thanks to Zubair Alexander, whose blog post Deleting Multiple Items in Google Voice History set me straight on this. It actually works for all the data that Google Voice stores, in fact.

 

Case 2: POP to IMAP Server Email Leftovers

 

Last year I switched from POP to IMAP email as a consequence of bundling e-mail into an Office 365 enterprise-level subscription, thanks to my Windows Insider MVP status. Little did I know that would leave thousands upon thousands of e-mail messages on the Spamarrest server from whence the vast majority of my inbound email comes to Exchange.

 

I have to visit Spamarrest every three days or so, and routinely delete between 3,000 and 5,000 emails (that’s what’s left after spam gets screened out, and after messages from senders not on my whitelist get shunted into an "unverified senders" folder).

 

Spamarrest does have a checkbox system, and will even let you aggregate messages into a single virtual page so you can chuck everything in one go. Here, alas, the issue is TCP timeout. When the background Spamarrest servers put together “big pages” (by experiment, I’ve determined this means pages with 1,200 or more constituent messages presented upon them) it takes so long to build them that TCP times out.