Monday, July 7 2008, 23:56
The little user-interface oddities of Mozilla applications
For roughly one week, I have switched from IE7 to Firefox… the reason is mainly for extensions and because as a geek, it makes sense to get a geeky and over-customizable browser, but that’s not the point… so I’m still tweaking a bit my profile and adjusting things to make the browser suit my tastes and preferences.
One thing that I don’t like in software is when it keeps asking you to answer the same question every time you do something and you always click the same button. The world would be a much better place if every message box had a tick box with the “Don’t ask me again” option, which is happily the case in Firefox.
The question itself is quite simple and is about a nice feature of Firefox. However, I rarely use this particular feature, so I don’t really care and the message box bugs me more than the feature is valuable to me, so I decided I didn’t want to ever see it again. So far, I clicked the buttons not really paying much attention to the text, but I had already the feeling it was confusing, but as I was answering it for the last time, I decided to read it a bit more carefully to be sure I clicked the good one… and indeed confusing it is. What do you expect someone to answer to this question? “Do you want Firefox to save your tabs for the next time it starts?”
I’m sure most people would answer “Yes/No” or “Save/Don’t save”, but here the button I wanted to click was called “Quit”, which doesn’t really reply the question explicitly and if I were the browser and someone replied me “Quit”, I would look at him strangely and asks “Sorry ? Alright, I will, but what do you want me to do about the tabs?”. “Quit” simply isn’t a natural answer to the question as it is asked above.
Trying to look smart and sexy is fine, but “Yes” and “No” would be have been a much better choice: of course, if you look at the message box as a whole, you understand what the second button means from the first button, but to me, the understandability of a button having to rely on a previous one is just a bad user-interface design. If you don’t read all the buttons, you can’t answer the question! Let’s remove the first one to make the point clearer...
Some may argue that you shouldn’t really answer a question without having considered all the options offered to you, but while it is true in some circumstances, most of the time, you know your choice for sure… especially if the message box comes back quite often like this one is supposed to. It is just quicker to read the question and then look at the buttons for the answer you get rather than read and interpret the meaning of each button.
While this certainly is nitpicking, as Raymond Chen points out, the The default answer to every dialog box is "Cancel", so the shorter it is to make sense out of a message box the better for the end-user. KC Lemson (User Experience Manager for Microsoft Exchange) had similar thoughts on a SSH client she uses regularly on her blog…
Another strange user-interface oddity in Mozilla products is the direction of the sort arrow on the list views. When a list view is sorted in descending order, the arrow in the list view will point downwards, whereas it is the opposite in Thunderbird for example (which I only use as a RSS client).
Mozilla Thunderbird, with a list sorted in descending order
Windows Explorer, with a list sorted in descending order
Now, which one is making the most sense? To be honest, the answer is not really obvious. Algebra-wise, the Microsoft way seems more logical as nearer to the superiority symbol >, but the Mozilla way, with the arrow pointing upwards feels like that the newer items are added at the top of the list, which is indeed the case.
Here, it is probably a matter of personal preference and I don’t really prefer one over the other in this case, but I noticed it because I got confused since I’m more used to the Microsoft-ish way, so I would really like all the developers to make their minds once for all and comply with some sort of implicit convention over this kind of minor details so the way user-interface works keeps consistent from one software vendor to another.