Closing Arguments

User intuition develops over years of using a product with consistent results. In this post, I’m analyzing several applications that offer the user the option to save a file upon closing.

I love open source applications, because they provide alternatives to many programs I’d like to avoid using, such as Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. But the developers of these programs need to acknowledge and accept a few norms that have crept into most users’ expectations, especially regarding common key functions.

When a file has been changed in a document such as Notepad, the user is prompted to save the file before before closing. After the question is asked to save changes, the three options are Yes (Y), No (N), and Cancel (Esc key, not explicitly told to the user, but fairly obvious).

Just to prove there’s a pattern beyond Microsoft applications, Adobe programs use the same Y/N/Esc options, but without the helpful underlined letters:

I should mention that I can’t afford to show an example from Photoshop CS. This is Photoshop 7’s closing dialog box. Adobe may have changed the box in more recent versions, but aside from adding underlines to specify keyboard input, I don’t see a reason to.

This format has been consistent in most of the programs I’ve encountered since the DOS ages. As such, when I’m about to close a document, I’ve instinctively got my finger on Y or N before I hit Close. The underlines help remind users that the keyboard can be used to make the selection, rather than the often more time-consuming mouse click.

OpenOffice, however, has ignored this ages-old tradition and uses completely different options for its closing dialog box. Instead of the Y/N choices, the user is given three different but ultimately equal options:

The question remains the same, but now our options are Save (S), Discard (D), and Cancel (also Esc). One argument for this change is the proximity of the S and D keys, but I’d see that as a reason not to use them, as they might cause a user to discard important changes. But the biggest reason is the blatant disregard for an established set of options, for no apparent reason I can think of.

Now to look at Mozilla Firefox, which not only goes against the grain concerning user intuition, but uses different options depending on the number of windows open. Which is why we add another usability icon for Firefox:

Firefox uses tabbed browsing, which allows a user to open multiple pages in the same window. Because of this, a user may forget that several tabs are open, close the window and lose his or her place in every page being visited. To help fix this, Firefox gives a simple warning when multiple tabs are about to be closed at once:

This makes it much easier to tell if several pages are about to be closed, and it’s been very helpful to me on many occasions. However, starting with Firefox 3, a new feature has been introduced. For the first few days after updating to version 3, I got this seemingly random dialog box when I went to close the program:

This box is confusing for a couple reasons. First of all, it uses a completely different set of options from the above Y/N or even S/D. The Esc key will cancel out of this box, but now the C key will also. But it’s the presence of the dialog box, which took me a while to understand, that really got to me.

This box only appears when there is only one Firefox window open. It doesn’t explain why we’re no longer given the option to close the tabs, and for users like me, who are used to hitting ALT+F4 and immediately pressing Enter to close all the open tabs, now we’re unknowingly saving our tabs by default. This inconsistency causes our previous browsing history to automatically recall itself the next time Firefox opens–and the next user will know what we’d been doing just before we closed Firefox.

Also, there’s the much smaller gripe about the checkboxes in both Firefox dialog boxes. The first box, the one that displays if multiple windows are open, is checked by default, and will continue to warn the user if multiple tabs are about to be closed. The second is unchecked by default, and must remain unchecked if the user wants the option to save his or her place upon closing. Ideally, a program that offers helpful features such as these would be consistent in its use of checkboxes. Since Firefox has always used the first example I discussed, my suggestion would be to keep boxes checked to enable these features.

I’ve sent emails to the developers of OpenOffice and Firefox, but the option to conform to the standard options after having established their own set of choices poses another consistency problem: changing now would only further confuse users who have grown accustomed to these options. Once a product has been released, it’s hard to change subtleties in features like this, which is why it’s good to acknowledge and understand certain time-tested aspects of human-conputer interaction and stick to them whenever possible.


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