Why does the copy dialog give me the incorrect total size of the files being copied?


If you try to copy a bunch of files to a drive that doesn't have enough available space, you get an error message like this:

1 Interrupted Action
There is not enough space on Removable Disk (D:). You need an additional 1.50 GB to copy these files.

▭  Removable Disk (D:)
Space free: 2.50 GB
Total size: 14.9 GB
Try again Cancel

"But wait," you say. "I'm only copying 5GB of data. Why does it say Total size: 14.9 GB?"

This is a case of information being presented out of context and resulting in mass confusion.

Suppose you saw the information like this:

Computer
◢ Hard Disk Drives (1)   
 
▭  Windows (C:)
Space free: 31.5 GB
Total size: 118 GB
◢ Drives with Removable Storage (1)   
 
▭  Removable Disk (D:)
Space free: 2.50 GB
Total size: 14.9 GB

In this presentation, it is clear that Total size refers to the total size of the drive itself.

So the original dialog is not saying that the total size of data being copied is 14.49 GB. It's trying to say that the total size of the removable disk is 14.9 GB.

Mind you, the presentation is very confusing since the information about the removable disk is presented without any introductory text. It's just plopped there on the dialog without so much as a hello.

I'm not sure how I would fix this. Maybe reordering the text elements would help.

1 Interrupted Action

There is not enough space on Removable Disk (D:).

▭  Removable Disk (D:)
Space free: 2.50 GB
Total size: 14.9 GB

You need an additional 1.50 GB to copy these files.

Try again Cancel

However, the design of the dialog may not allow the information tile to be inserted into the middle of the paragraph. It might be restricted to a layout where you can have text, followed by an information tile, followed by buttons. In that case, maybe it could go

1 Interrupted Action

You need an additional 1.50 GB to copy these files. There is not enough space on Removable Disk (D:).

▭  Removable Disk (D:)
Space free: 2.50 GB
Total size: 14.9 GB
Try again Cancel

But like I said, I'm not sure about this.

Comments (31)
  1. Raphael says:

    Replacing "Total size" by "Total capacity" might help.

  2. Avenida says:

    Instead of shuffling elements around, why not just say "total disk size" instead of "total size"? Seems like a simple enough way to make it less ambiguous.

  3. Katie says:

    Is the total size of the disk even needed here?

  4. Boris says:

    But why would I be interested in the total size at this point? In most cases it'll be something like 32 GB, 64 GB, 128 GB, whereas all I need to know is how much to delete so I can finish copying the files.

    Neither do I really care about the current free space, but rather the space that needs to be free before a second attempt (once I free the 1.50 GB, I might double-check the available space and empty the Recycle Bin if I'd forgotten about that part).

    My suggestion:

    1 Interrupted Action

    There is not enough space on Removable Disk (D:).

    You need an additional 1.50 GB to copy these files.

    Removable Disk (D:)

    Free space needed: 4.00 GB

    [But that means that anywhere drives show up in Explorer, they don't show total size. Remember, the tile is just a copy of whatever Explorer normally shows for the drive. It's not customized. -Raymond]
  5. Vilx- says:

    +1 to Katie & Boris. I too feel like the "Total Size" is unnecessary here entirely. What does it help to the person who's trying to copy the files? Tell him that "Yes, you could copy the files if you freed up some space"? I think that's rarely the case today. But if so, then I suggest the error message comes in 2 flavors:

    a) You need to free up X GB of space;

    b) You need a drive which is at least X GB larger.

    Alternatively, you could go full information overboard:

    Copying file of X GB;

    Drive has Y GB of Z GB free;

    Free up W GB space / Get a drive that is W GB larger;

    Here's another good principle for error messages - don't tell the user that "X is wrong". Tell them "Do Y to fix X". In this case, tell them to either free up space or get a larger drive.

    But the simplest change of course would be to simply remove the "Total Size" line.

  6. Vilx- says:

    Ahh, I understand. That part is a generic control which shows drive information. Well... can it be modified to allow extra parameters - like "bool bShowTotalSize"?

    [This is the "any item that appears in Explorer", so "bShowTotalSize" wouldn't make much sense for, say, an item in a virtual. Each item decides how it wishes to display in Explorer, and this dialog box just accepts each item's choice of presentation. (Besides, you can customize which properties appear via TileInfo.) -Raymond]
  7. Sockatume says:

    There's an underlying design issue here that's obscured by trying to fix the arrangement of the information, namely:

    Why are you telling the user the total size of their disk at all?

    All the user wants to do is take those files, and put them on the device. All that matters in that context is the amount of free space, and the size of the files they're trying to put on there. There's one exception - if the total size of the device is less than the size of the files to be copied, the user can make space until the cows come home and it'll never work. However given that Windows knows both of these numbers already, it should be able to test for that first and point out that what the user's doing is impossible.

    =========================================

    There is not enough free space on Removable Disk (D:).

    ▭ Removable Disk (D:)

    Files being copied: 4 GB

    Space free: 2.50 GB

    You need an additional 1.50 GB to copy these files.

    ==========================================

    =========================================

    Removable Disk (D:) is not large enough for these files

    ▭ Removable Disk (D:)

    Files being copied: 4 GB

    Total size of Removable Disk (D:): 1GB

    You need to use a device at least 4GB in size,

    with at least 4GB of free space.

    ==========================================

  8. Danny says:

    Quote: "But that means that anywhere drives show up in Explorer, they don't show total size. Remember, the tile is just a copy of whatever Explorer normally shows for the drive. It's not customized. -Raymond"

    With so much bloat in Windows does it really matter if that one would be made customized? I mean always Microsoft reserved bits in their structures for future implementations. This would be nice to start using those reserved bits, use them as pointers to new extended structures. Also MSDN is full of blahblahEx routines, so what one in plus will matter anyway? The way Windows goes ain't like it cares about how uncontrolled some parts grow anyway. And you're paid anyway to support compatibility mode for those "cancerous" growths anyway, so job security and perks etc.

  9. Boris says:

    Vilx: whenever I've lacked space on a removable drive, I've either 1) deleted obvious junk or 2) purchased another removable drive. Transferring everything to a larger drive would be a pain and lead to more and more eggs in one basket.

    So it's enough to know how much to delete and how much needs to be free in the end (for comparison with the actual state, after I'd deleted some files). I'm speaking purely from a user's POV, of course - if there are serious limitations involving Explorer, it's a different matter altogether.

  10. CarlD says:

    But the Total Size IS useful.  It differentiates the case "These files won't fit now but might if you deleted something" from the case "These files won't fit now and there's no way they'll ever fit".   With the plethora of removable devices of varying sizes it's more likely than ever that the user doesn't actually know the capacity of the USB thumb drive they just inserted.

  11. Boris says:

    CarlD: yes, but even then, it would be more useful to tell the user that the drive just isn't large enough for all the files, and then the user could decide to split them up or get a larger drive.

  12. moo says:

    The most annoying thing about the "not enough free space dialogue" is that it doesn't take into account that files you are overwriting already have space allocated.

  13. Evan says:

    > Here's another good principle for error messages - don't tell the user that "X is wrong".

    > Tell them "Do Y to fix X". In this case, tell them to either free up space or get a larger drive.

    Or copy fewer files. Or resize the destination partition. Or copy them over the network. Or....

    The problem with "here's how to fix it" is there are often oodles of possible ways to fix it.

  14. Kevin says:

    To everyone complaining about the tile not being customized: I'm sure it's on a list somewhere.

    blogs.msdn.com/.../10017567.aspx

  15. Tim says:

    >But the Total Size IS useful.  It differentiates the case "These files won't fit now but might if you deleted something" from the case "These files won't fit now and there's no way they'll ever fit".   With the plethora of removable devices of varying sizes it's more likely than ever that the user doesn't actually know the capacity of the USB thumb drive they just inserted.

    Yeah, I think all the people who are suggesting that total size is irrelevant have tunnel vision from this one example where it wasn't relevant. If Raymond had presented an example where someone was trying to copy 10 GB of data to a 5 GB drive, no one here would be asking to remove total size from the dialog.

  16. Macrosofter says:

    Include the size of data being copied in the dialog, so it will be harder to misunderstand.

  17. Eddie Lotter says:

    I'm not sure why people are confused by this dialog box. To me it is clear that "total size" is part of the drive information. It's right there with the drive letter and the drive's free space.

    The sizes dealing with the copy are mentioned in the first paragraph.

    To my mind the information is logically grouped and clear.

    Since you're saying that some people are confused and that you have no control over the drive information text, my suggestion would be to change what you do have control of: Add a line to the dialog text that simply says "Drive information follows" before the drive information.

  18. Dave Oldcorn says:

    I'd phrase it "Space Free 2.5GB (of 14.9GB)"

    [That would be great, if only there were a way to express that. -Raymond]
  19. SimonRev says:

    I'm so glad I needed to confirm my Microsoft account password so I could access that sensitive information on MSDN documenting System.PropList.TileInfo.

  20. IanBoyd says:

    I never was confused about the wording before; but i certainly prefer your first variation over the original.

    The drive space control breaks up the two initial sentences. And after everything above it, it then summarizes what has to happen next: "You must free up x to do this"

  21. Azarien says:

    @Dave Oldcorn: such short phrases like "of 14.9GB" may prove a nightmare for localization.

  22. foo says:

    Maybe the total size could be reported the same as the storage device's manufacturer advertises it (eg: 16GB). That way a user might have a slightly higher chance of associating the number with its true meaning. (runs for cover :-)

  23. Neil says:

    The space free obviously refers to the disk, as does the disk label. Might putting the total size in between make it clearer that this also refers to the disk, rather than the files being copied?

    Removable Disk (D:)

    Total size: 14.9 GB

    Space free: 2.50 GB

  24. Max says:

    Knowing the disk's total size IS useful, even in the case of a file transfer operation. Sure, a fully in-the-know user who's clear on exactly what they're doing shouldn't need it, but Windows has to account for when users make mistakes or aren't 100% sure what they're doing. If you're trying to put a 2GB file on a nearly-full 250GB drive, that's something that can be solved just by deleting a few files, but if you're trying to put a 2GB file on a nearly-full 2.5GB drive, you'd pretty much have to delete everything on the drive to get it to fit. Since people don't always use drive labels, and drive letters aren't very descriptive, it also serves as an extra piece of information to remind the user which drive is which - maybe they plugged in their 2GB drive and their 250GB drive in a different order than usual and didn't pay enough attention to realize they were copying to the wrong drive letter, so that small and innocent piece of information acts as one more place the user could potentially notice any mistakes they may have made.

    With that in mind, the issue with "Total Size" is apparent - it depends almost entirely on context to give it meaning, and the less experienced a user is with computers and/or Windows GUI conventions, the more likely they are to mistake or misinterpret the context. It'd be best to just spell it out and change the label to "Total disk size"...although in this day and age, "Total drive size" is probably more accessible to the computer novice. It may not necessarily be the technically correct term in all cases, but for a novice user it's not really intuitive to associate "disk" with their hard drive, their flash drive, or their DVD drive. It worked out okay when the primary removable device was a floppy disk, but now it's a question of being correct in the eyes of computer experts vs being easy to grasp for computing novices who only know the most basic jargon. Of course, it's a question that'll draw criticism no matter which answer you choose.

  25. doynax says:

    While we're on the subject of potentially ambiguous size limit messages in the file copying dialog, how about adding a few words (and perhaps a help section) to the "The file X is too large for the destination file system." message? I suspect that most casual users will simply assume that their USB stick is full on seeing this message, not that it needs to be reformatted in exFAT to store their >4GB movie file.

  26. Ken says:

    Raymond, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on designing a single solution to an unknown number of situations. It's great to see someone genuinely care to not just fix a problem but to improve the system. Your understanding of the constraints and how to weight the needs of the various stakeholders involved is inspiring.

  27. DebugErr says:

    Just hide the tile. Noone needs that to be there.

  28. Deanna says:

    I have to say that I immediately read it as space on the target volume. I'm not sure how it cold be misread either :-(

  29. morlamweb says:

    This discussion reminds of Larry Osterman's blog post from 2009 on fixing a bug in microphone properties UI: blogs.msdn.com/.../when-you-do-ux-work-sometimes-you-have-to-worry-about-the-strangest-things.aspx  All of the information displayed in the dialog box looks correct, but it intuitively looks "wrong" to some people.  My suggestion (I know that you didn't ask for one, but everyone else has offered theirs): draw a box around the tile to visually isolate it from the message.  Maybe even add a label to the box like "Disk information".  Add some blank space between the tile and the message.  Perhaps it's a bit old school to use UI elements like labeled boxes today, but sometimes, they can serve a useful purpose.

  30. jgh says:

    [Try Again] [Cancel]

    Argh! My biggest bugbear with Windows file handling. Where's the [Skip this file] button?

    DIV CLASS=post>[Skip which file? This is a message about the entire operation, not a specific file. The option would have to be "Skip specific files" and then a dialog box would appear listing all the files in the copy operation and letting you select which ones to skip. -Raymond]

  31. xpclient says:

    Typical Microsoft stupidity and mediocrity. How to screw up and fuss over the simplest of things because they have no clue about how to design it unambiguously.

    [Hey, good to see you. I thought we had lost you. By the way, thanks for putting words in my mouth on your twitter feed. -Raymond]

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