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Originally posted December 3 2005 at 17:12 under Computing. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled. Last modified: 24 March 2006 at 01:01

Should Cancel Be Default

I wrote this a while ago but it’s been sitting in draft status for sometime—I think I had the intention of doing a bit more research but I’m just putting it out there as a poorly formed thought.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about the order of the OK and Cancel buttons. Since starting to use Linux I haven’t really noticed the buttons being the other way around to what I was used to under Windows. In fact I didn’t notice until the other day when I was briefly using Windows and got confused by the order. I’m not sure why I should have noticed the problem more on Windows (maybe my brain just intuitively more expects the Linux order) but I think part of the reason I haven’t been bothered is that a lot of the time I don’t click those buttons—I just hit enter. Realising that got me to thinking—why is OK a good default?

At first it seems obvious. Hitting enter should execute the command. Well, where does that idea come from? “Execute a command”?? The whole notion of enter performing the action originates in a command line culture, not something the average user thinks about (this is not to say the average user hasn’t become used to this convention—far from it, they are at time too used to it). The “because it should do” isn’t a particularly good argument when you start asking why.

Ahhh, yes, but from a usability point of view you want to quickly perform the action, without much hassle, by hitting the great big enter key. Except this is where the problems arise. The user hits that enter key without thinking (it’s well known that warning dialogues are virtually useless because the user automatically bypasses them without thinking after a while). Yet what if that action is fairly critical? Shouldn’t the user be given a moment to think about it, just in case they are making a mistake? Shouldn’t the cancel button be default? Think about it. Clicking OK (by hitting Enter) could have potentially devastating consequences, especially if it’s done “by accident”. The consequences of accidentally hsitting Cancel are only that the action has to be reinitialised. It might waste time, but not as much time as recovering from major data loss. Isn’t that better usability?

Of course the problem is that the instances where hitting Enter have severe and unwanted consequences are far out numbered by the instances where clicking OK is exactly what is wanted. The huge frustration of hitting Enter and then realising it was a very bad idea is lost in all the small frustrations of not being able to quickly get on with what you were doing because the stupid computer thinks your stupid and are making a mistake. The answer to this may depend on the severity of the task being performed. Perhaps deleting a file ought to have a default of OK but deleting and bypassing the trash should default to Cancel, giving the user a second chance because the really don’t want to get that wrong.

I’ve no doubt other, wiser minds have thought about this. I just can’t be bothered to Google for it at the moment. Perhaps some of them even came to roughly the same conclusion as me. It may be that the design mistakes of the past are no too ingrained to be correctable. OK and Enter seem forever linked, and the user will just have to live with it.

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This Crazy Fool

Dr Ian Scott
Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

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