Cancel/ Ok or Ok/Cancel?

Humans are, for better or for worse, emotional beings. We like and dislike things. Our judgements are mostly based on some tangible experiences but often on experiences which we can’t even describe. What’s wrong with the UX of the Windows platform? Most people can’t tell, but they do make up their minds.

The debate

The debate whether we should have the usual combo of OK and Cancel buttons as Cancel/OK or OK/Cancel, has been raging on over at UX stackexchange.

Usability research says its OK/Cancel

The respected Jakob Neilson wrote an article on the matter in 2008. No doubt, there are many more Windows users out there in the world than any other OS users, and so usability studies suggest that the favoured pattern is OK/Cancel. I strongly disagree with this anti-pattern.

OK/Cancel is an anti-pattern

Microsoft created an anti-pattern when they started putting their primary button on the left, with the secondary or ‘Cancel’ button on the right. I’ll give you several reasons why I think so, but before that, you need to consider a usability issue quite apparent with OK/Cancel:

Demonstration of Next button on right, Back on left.

Noticed the problem? The primary button keeps moving from under your cursor when you put it on the left! That is because other options might pop up during the course of whatever you are doing in a dialogue box. But if the primary action button is on the right, it gives you a consistent UI. I’ve tripped my own installations on Windows with this moving target several times in the past.

Why it should be Cancel/OK

Before Microsoft conditioned the brains of the human population to their own ways of doing things, we’ve been conditioned into thinking that things progress from left to the right. Here are a few reasons why:

  • The English language flows left to right.
  • The browser navigation works Back(left) and Forward(Right).
  • Old 2D games like Dangerous Dave move the character to the right, when they are progressing further.
  • Numbers on the number line increase to the right, decrease to the left.
  • Atomic weights on the periodic table increase to the right.
  • The clock ticks to the right.Calendar increases dates to the right.

Discussing this with a UX colleague, I was given many more examples:

  • Piano keys and their note pitches progress as you move right.
  • Volume knobs increase volume as you turn it to the right.
  • The ‘escape’ and ‘enter’ keys are laid out to the left and the right of the keyboard respectively.
  • Brake and accelerate car pedals are on left and right respectively as well.

Sometimes user research is not enough. An anti-pattern created decades ago doesn’t mean that we should continue to perpetuate that mistake. Human instincts tell us through our environment that right means progress and left means going backwards. We need to fix this anti-pattern and bring back the way human psychology is set up to do things.