this blog is girtby.net

Posted
31 March 2005 @ 11pm

Tagged
Nerd Factor X, Provocation

What does this button do?

See the smaller X in the picture below? Quick: what does it do?

Window Close Box

OK well pretty obviously it closes something. The question is: what?

To make this game easier I’ll tell you that it’s actually a screenshot from one of the Microsoft Office 2003 suite, running on (in case you can’t tell from the appearance) Windows XP.

So then, if you really know your Microsoft apps, you’ll then say “Ah-ha! It’s probably either Word or PowerPoint. Neither Outlook nor Excel have that little x. No wait, that’s not quite true; Excel has a little x button if you have a document “child window” maximised (see picture below )”.

Excel Close Box

If you answered this way, congratulations. But that still doesn’t help you answer the question of what happens when you click on the little close button.

Give up? OK, here’s a summary of what you can expect from each of the the four major components of the Office 2003 suite:

  • In Word, the button closes the document and the enclosing window. It is, as far as I can tell, identical to the big close button immediately above.

  • In Excel, clicking this button will close the “child window”. This is MDI terminology for the document window which lives permanently inside the application window. That’s why there are the minimise/restore buttons as well.

  • In Outlook, the button isn’t there.

  • In PowerPoint, the button closes the document, but not the enclosing window. You end up viewing the document behind the current one. Or an “empty” application window.

Of the four, only the behaviour of Excel and Outlook makes any sense whatsoever. Excel is a traditional MDI application, (well, apart from representing each document as a separate task in the task bar, but we’ll ignore that for now) so it has a big window which represents the application as a whole, and sub-windows which display the open documents.

I’ve never liked MDI. Each application window has it’s own opaque background which prevents you from seeing the windows of other applications behind it. So if you want to be able to see many documents from many different types of applications on the screen at once, just forget it. There are many other flaws too. The one thing you can say about MDI though is that it’s a defined standard and reasonably consistent across applications.

In an attempt to address the limitations of MDI, some time ago Microsoft introduced SDI, where each document was given it’s own window on screen. So this means that you don’t need these separate close (or minimise/maximise) boxes within the window – the widgets on the window itself will suffice. All good, except that of the big four Office applications, Outlook seems to be the only one to implement it.

Word’s sins are comparatively minor: the “child” close button is simply a duplication of the window close button. Makes you wonder why they bothered, really. Maybe it is a bug? As in, they meant to remove it from an earlier, perhaps more MDI-centric, iteration of the application but for whatever reason didn’t (perhaps they were too busy introducing new and buggy unicode features).

If Word is buggy, then PowerPoint is downright broken. It won’t let you open multiple documents within a window (like MDI), but it also won’t let you open a new window for each new document (like SDI). The result is that you can’t view two separate PowerPoint documents on the screen together – at least not without manually launching another instance of PowerPoint. It’s the worst of both MDI and SDI.

[A minor point, but they've also abused the "Window" terminology in the menu structure to the point that the New Window command doesn't actually create a new window. For that you need the Really Create New Window Pretty Please command. I'm joking - or am I?]

So let’s say you’re a Windows application developer. You want to do the right thing and give your application a user interface that is consistent with the stated guidelines and unstated conventions of the Windows platform. Where better to look but the application suite that everyone uses, Microsoft Office?

Well as we can see, Office is a disaster area. There are “pure” MDI applications like Excel, “pure” SDI apps like Outlook, and weird hybrids like Word and PowerPoint (and I haven’t even touched Access and the others yet).

So I have at various times come across criticism of various applications, mostly media players, that don’t use native widgets and hence aren’t consistent with the rest of the operating system. This is a fair comment, but it ignores the far worse sins committed right under our noses (so to speak) in the Office suite.

It is one thing to invent new widgets that perform the same function as old widgets; it’s quite another to change the behaviour of existing widgets to make them behave in new, broken, and unexpected ways. And that’s exactly what Microsoft have done.

This is window management – pretty basic stuff. Microsoft have smart people, they could fix this if they cared. Apparently they don’t.

And now for the inevitable comparison to MacOS. You knew it was coming.

Well the good news is that on MacOS X it is almost never the case that standard widgets get abused like this. The appearance of the UI changes, but not so radically that you can’t recognise the basic widgets and be able to easily determine their function. In addition, the convention of one-document-per-window was set right from the early days, and has prettymuch always been adhered to, where it makes sense to do so. Despite a brief foray into document-centric computing (look up OpenDoc some time), and some other tweaks along the way, I think MacOS has evolved into a highly usable standard (or set of standards) for applications and their document/window model and this doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

However that doesn’t stop Apple introducing new UI elements on days ending in ‘y’. These are often created simply for the sake of looking cool and fresh and pure and yes, even natural.

Over at daringfireball, John Gruber worries that the trend will continue with Tiger and that, as far as UI self-consistency goes, the gap between Windows and MacOS X is closing. I’m of the opinion that Apple would have to fuck it up bigtime for the gap to even start closing, not when Microsoft keep scoring own-goals of the type described above.


13 Comments

Posted by
Chris
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

When I clicked the X my mind closed.

You Microsoft-loathing infidel! How dare you question the holy trinity of productivity apps! Mac OSX – do not worship false idols even if they are shiny and white.

Mmmmm shiny and white.

But seriously, once upon a time we decided to look at how different document-handling applications interpret the concept of horizontal and vertical window tiling. It was entertaining at the time – it’s probably still entertaining today.


[...] it? So that’s it for another week of Close That Window! Next week we will look at closing individual documents in Microsoft Office 2003. Until next week, remember [...]


Posted by
Julian
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

Unfortunately, the story keeps going. I launched Microsoft Publisher on the weekend. It is another part of the Microsoft Office Suite, and it also allows multiple documents to be edited at once.

While it has a File | Close menu item, it doesn’t support the X icon in the top corner.


Posted by
Julian
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

Microsoft FrontPage, of course, takes a slightly different approach. It couples the X icon more closely with the pane being edited – the X is further down the page. Perhaps this is more sensible; it suggests you are closing the pane being edited, not the pane+toolbars+menu.

I notice that, sometimes, Microsoft Publisher also offers this sort of interface, and sometimes, as mentioned in the above comment, the icon is not available at all.


Posted by
OddThinking » CLOSE THAT WINDOW!
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
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[...] it? So that’s it for another week of Close That Window! Next week we will look at closing individual documents in Microsoft Office 2003. Until next week, remember [...]


Posted by
Beth
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

Ok Here’s another funny. I am running word 2003. I hit the close windows button, after is askes me if I want to save the document. It closes Word all together. But this doesn’t happen all the time. Any clue or is this just another way for Microsoft to mess with us.


Posted by
alastair
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

Beth,

What does it do when it doesn’t close Word altogether? Does it just close the document and leave an empty window?

As for why it happens – I don’t know but I doubt that it is by design.


Posted by
Colm
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

This is an awful problem!

I use word a lot and have grown used to it’s “click the outer X button to close one document” irregularity. Now because excel is following the rules tightly I keep closing documents without saving them first!

I click the big x button and am prompted with the box “Do i want to save the document?” so I quickly click no but when it brings up the same prompt for the document I wanted to close I suddenly realise that it was closing all excel documents in the order that I opened them. Therefore I said I didn’t want to save the document when I really did, losing all my work! Arrrrrrgh!!

How difficult would it really be for microsoft to include the same MDI/SDI options they offer in applications such as Visual Studio??

Please microsoft just give us the option and let us make up our own mind!


Posted by
Acrobat Reader 7 also broken
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
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Even though each document is displayed in its own window, clicking on the big X on the upper right edge closes all documents and not just the current window. How strange is that?


Posted by
su
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
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when i am closing my form a msg box appears asking” MS Access do you want to save ,when i say YES it it again saving the same info which i have already saved


Posted by
brainsnorkel.com » Restore that file
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
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[...] I’m joining in the user interface critiques of other nearby blogs, specifically, OddThinking’s Close that window and Girtby’s What does this button do? I decided to document, with painstaking detail, my favourite user interface problem of the last month or so. [...]


Posted by
Jared Frost
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
#

I have a question and found your post on google.com. I have a user that is experiencing an application closure while in word 2003 SP2 when he file


Posted by
Marlene Rich
31 March 2005 @ 11pm
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I’ve encountered a problem with Word 2003 “closing routines” when the red X is clicked. In searching for answers I came across your Blog — interesting — real close to what I’m looking for. I’m one of those ‘Windows application developers’ mentioned in your ‘What does this button do?’ thread. Maybe you or your group can help me: when my application users Close Word using the red X and there is only 1 visible document left open, MS Word ignores the fact that I have a hidden ‘variables’ file that needs to close (my Users don’t know about this file, nor should they) — Dcouments.Count = 2) — MS Word skips my AutoClose & AutoExit & Document_Close routines, closes the ActiveDocument & the ActiveWindow for the 1 visible document, but leaves Winword.exe running with my hidden file open. I cannot seem to trap the path MS Word is using to Close the visble doc. Any suggestions? Thanks.