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Web Browsers File Download Security Warnings

by Shanmuga| Tweet This | Google +1 | Facebook | Stumble It | Reddit | Digg |

Regular readers of this Website will be aware that before downloading any file they should ask themselves these questions: Did you actually request this file by clicking a link on a Website, or did the alert appear without any action on your part? Do you trust the website providing the file? Do you know what the file is for and what it will do to your computer? Web browsers play an important role in giving a clue to all or some of these questions.

When you download a software, your Web browser will alert you about the risks involved with the act. Typically this alert contain the name, size and location of the file. Here are examples of alerts by popular browsers.

Internet Explorer

The Internet Explorer file download – security warning from version 6 that shipped with XP SP3 to version 8 more or less remained the same.


If you’re downloading a document, you’ll see an Open button instead of Run. The Run button is the first of the three buttons displayed and lengthy cautionary text follows in the footer. The shield icon denotes caution.


Internet Explorer 9 uses a pulsating gold information bar at the bottom. The warning text is short and up to the point, it might not be displayed at all times. One of the time it is shown is when it appears that you didn’t request the file. The shield icon is smaller than in earlier versions, but the color of the information bar conveys the message visually.


Mozilla Firefox


There are no warning text, but you are only allowed to Save File or Cancel the download. There are no visual clues to the user.

Google Chrome


The file download dialogue appears in the bottom information bar with a short warning message. There is no Run button, only Save and Discard buttons are displayed. A small exclamation mark inside a triangle icon emphasizes the caution text.



There are no warning text of any kind in Apple’s Safari browser. The user is allowed to Run, Save or Cancel the download. I don’t know what the lock icon in the dialogue box signifies.



Opera displays a short warning message above the action buttons. Run, Save, Cancel and Help buttons are displayed. There are no visual clues to the user.

So how should a file download security warning be displayed? Lenny Zeltser in his recommendations for designing security warnings says:

  • “Make the safest button (e.g., “Discard”, rather than “Run”) most visible. This usually involves placing it first on the left, making it larger or highlighting it in a brighter color.
  • Be brief. Users will ignore lengthy text, so include just a few necessary words in the main warning, giving people a chance to click a button for details.
  • Include enough background details (e.g., the type of downloaded file) to help the person make a decision regarding the best course of action.
  • Stay away from technical jargon that most users of the product won’t understand or will misinterpret.
  • Don’t overwhelm the user with numerous warnings in a row. After a while, choice fatigue will prevent the user from selecting wisely.”

What the warning dialogue boxes really need most are the visual cues. Utilizing perceivable colors and relevant images to warn the users about the consequences of the action they are about to perform will definitely improve awareness.

A picture is worth more than a thousand words, right?

Please share your thoughts.

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