You Windows 3.1 Lovers!

Earlier this week, I somewhat humorously referred to people who close windows on the left side as "Windows 3.1 lovers." What did I mean by that?

The now-ubiquitous close button in the upper-right hand corner of windows was only added to the operating system in Windows 95. Previously, as you can see in this picture of Word 6.0 running on Windows 3.1, the only caption controls on the right side of the title bar were minimize and maximize/restore. The way you closed a window was by double-clicking the little horizontal line icon in the upper-left corner of the window.

Windows 3.1-style title bar and MDI menu

Historical departure:
The keyboard shortcut for "open the system menu" in Windows has always been Alt+Space. Why? Because the icon that the menu comes out of looks like the space bar on the keyboard.

How, you might ask, do you open the MDI system menu located directly beneath the normal system menu? You guessed it, Alt+Hyphen, because the icon looks a lot like a hyphen. Of course, since Windows 95, neither of these icons looks anything like a space bar or a hyphen, yet the keyboard shortcuts remain the same even in Windows Vista (and likely forevermore.)

Back to the story:
Anyway, in Windows 95 the close box was added to the upper-right corner, but they kept the ability to close windows by double-clicking the product icon on the left side of the title bar. As a result, even some whippersnappers like me who barely remember computers pre-Windows 95 learned to close windows that way.

Whoops, I let out my big secret.

You see, I'm a left-side double-click closer myself. It's embarrassing, I know, but I just can't break the habit. Oh so many times during the beta of Office I've moved my mouse to the upper-left corner, realized that I couldn't close the window, and then jumped to the other side of the screen to hit the close box.

We removed left-side close as a planned experiment. If people could get used to closing on the right side, we'd be better off because there wouldn't be two ways of doing the same simple action. Clearly if we were building a new window manager from scratch with no pre-existing users, we would only have one way to close windows.

But, of course, we have hundreds of millions of users, many of which (like me) literally have left-side close burned into the lower levels of our brain stem, along with breathing and keeping the heart beating. Honestly, I can seem to relearn anything except for this.

Nonetheless, we tried taking this out--we shipped Beta 1 Technical Refresh and Beta 2 this way and waited for feedback. Could people adapt? Not really, as it turns out.

Honestly, we knew all along that there was a strong possibility we would have to find a way to add this functionality back. It was worth a shot, but in the end, creating an affordance for left-side closing eliminates one huge annoyance that stands in the way of some people's enjoyment of the product.

Soon, I'll explain a bit about the design we decided on and the thought process behind it.

Comments (78)

  1. Anthony Williams says:

    Haha, and heres me thinking it was just me that thought it was a pain that I couldn’t left click close. And I’ve never used any computer pre-windows 3.1! Not sure how I picked up the habit.

  2. Tobie Fysh says:

    So why can we still do it in Outlook….. I must admit I hate it!

  3. Brian Crowell says:

    Hallelujah! Thanks for that. That would be one of the more frustrating things to relearn.

  4. Bergamot says:

    Amen brotha!

  5. Siim Karus says:

    I don’t remember ever using double-clicking to close windows in Windows 3.1. However, I have used it with newer Windows for more practical reasons. You see, the screens of todays computers are too small to fit all these windows (1400×1050 I have currently is really not enough), so after a while you will have many of the windows pushed partially off screen (which is an annoyance with IE and WMP betas as they tend to crash when pushed off screen top – maybe a problem related to ATI drivers). So you will see all the important parts of windows, but might not have close button visible. So when you have the right side of a window off screen (or covered by another window), there are just two (fast) ways to close it: 1) set focus to window and press alt+F4 (generally used when the computer using session requires the use of keyboard mainly) or to double click the left corner (if your hands are nowhere near the keyboard, it is the fasest way). There is also a third, slower option – double-click to maximize and then close button or close with double-click. Keeping in mind, how many applications can be set to be on top of others all the time, this kind of habits are not to be forgot soon.

  6. Kroc Camen says:

    Fascinating! I’ve always used the Alt+Spc shortcut but didn’t know about the meaning behind it. When I was at school half the network was Win 3.1 machines, and the other half Win95 so I got a lot of experience between the two. There’s a lot about the simplicity of Win 3.1 I miss, Word 6 is all I ever need in a word processor 😛

    I too use the program icon in the upper-left to close every now and again. Linux doesn’t do this, and on Macs of course, they’re all on the left anyway.

  7. Alun Jones says:

    "We removed left-side close as a planned experiment. If people could get used to closing on the right side, we’d be better off because there wouldn’t be two ways of doing the same simple action. Clearly if we were building a new window manager from scratch with no pre-existing users, we would only have one way to close windows."

    Huh?  What’s wrong with redundancy?  I like to close windows with the X in the top-right, double-clicking on the top-left icon, pressing Alt-F4, or Alt-F then X, or dropping the file menu down and selecting "Exit", or right-clicking on the tile in the task bar, and selecting Close.

    There should be many disparate ways of doing common tasks, in part to accommodate accessibility requirements, but also to allow for users’ different tastes.

    To do otherwise is to force the user to learn how to do things one way to fit the computer’s programmed expectations.

    That’s backwards – computers should adapt to the users.

  8. Adam says:

    Alun: You’re completely right!

    I think all windows should close on Ctrl+C or Ctrl+Break, as that’s what DOS programs did. And they should close when I type ":q!" as that’s what vi does. And Ctrl+X, Ctrl+C as that’s how Emacs quits. And F7 as that’s what WordPerfect used to do. And when I middle-click the titlebar, as that’s how I have KDE set up at home. And however Mac closes windows too.

    Yesiree, adapting to all the users who have ever used computers, including those who are still stuck with habits from Windows 3.1 and before, is exactly the right way to produce an easy-to-learn and intuitive user interface!

  9. Centaur says:

    Okay, okay. Now humor us old farts who can’t ever adapt to blue gradients and rounded corners, and give us classic, gray and rectangular user interface.

  10. James Schend says:

    <i>And however Mac closes windows too.</i>

    That would be hard, since the Mac uses either a single-click in the upper-left widget, or the Command-W shortcut and there’s no Command key on Windows.  🙂  (Programs like VNC seem to usually remap Alt as Command, Windows Key as Option, and keep Control how it is, but I digress.)

    As a long-time Mac user, I also close windows from the left side as much as the right.  Putting the close box on the right side struck me as an pretty arbitrary decision, probably made by the legal team to avoid an Apple lawsuit.

    In a way, the right side is better because closing a window is a "destructive" action, and therefore should be placed where it can’t be hit by accident.  On Mac, that’s not an issue because windows don’t have their own menu bars, but on Windows I could see somebody going for the file menu and hitting the close box by mistake.  That said, the minimize button is still WAY too close to Close for comfort, and there should probably be more of a gap between them.  (Same problem on OS X, BTW.)

  11. ChrisW says:

    I’m with Siim. I’m an X-clicker, but the double-click-in-the-left-box option is still used sometimes in "emergencies" when for whatever reason, the X is inaccessible. One situation that comes to mind is when WMP is set to stay on top, obscuring the X in other apps.

  12. aleske says:

    Huh… Good. Before I bought a mouse with five buttons, I use icon-double-click too for many years. But now I close windows with fifth-button-click (I just map it to Alt-F4). =)

    But not too many users have such button-rich mouse… :)))

  13. Julian Kay says:

    Oh wow! I’m glad it’s coming back.

  14. [ICR] says:

    Alun Jones: If you have too many ways to do the same action you have a short period of deciding which is best. There are also a few other factors that make it a poor UI decision.

    However, for the reasons qouted, and the fact closing a Window is a rare task (and so a little extra thinking time really doesn’t matter) means that this is acceptable.

    A random and unrelated point, as anyone else noticed in XP there is a 1 pixel gap between minimise and maximise, but not maximise and close? Any reason for this?

  15. A User says:

    What I really miss from the days of 3.1 is:

    Well indexed and thoughtfully cross-referenced help files.

  16. John Topley says:

    I’m a right-click on the Taskbar and select Close kind of guy, although I do use Alt + F4 a lot too.

  17. Browny says:

    I’m for getting rid of the left menu all together. There are so many ways to close a program  that remove two of the options it’s going to change much really. With all the other interface changes that where going to have to learn with Office and Vista we shouldn’t clutter the interface up with unnecessary buttons. If you’re power users, and by the sounds of it most of you here are, why not use the keyboard shortcuts, they save so much time. I know of 9 ways that I can close most software on windows with.

    # Double click left icon

    # Single click left icon and click close.

    # File Menu | Exit/Close

    # Red X Button top right

    # Keyborad Shortcut ALT-F4

    # Right click Taskbar entry select close

    # Bring up task manager (CTRL+SHIFT+ESC) and end process or applications

    # Some programmers still use escape key to close a program (EVERY PROGRAM SHOULD USE THIS KEY)

    # Program a mouse button to close a window.

    The ones I use most are Red X, ALT-F4 and right click on Taskbar entry, with Task Manager as a legitimate backup.

  18. Eddie says:

    I use alt-space-n and alt-space-x pretty religiously.. of course, and alt-f4.

    I do think the "windows" key should be used more for these kinds of things.  I like win-D and win-M, but always thought there should be an individual window control as well.

    I use third party apps like copernics winkey or that qliner co’s new windows key app to get full use out of my windows key, but it seems strange there’s only a handful (by keyboard shortcut standards) of shortcuts that it uses- seems like a waste

    It’s my belief that the max/min functions should be moved over to the left with the traditional icon and the "X" should stand alone all out there alone with it’s descructive self.

  19. Karen says:

    My concern is less with closing windows but closing individual workbooks (in Excel). In previous versions (as many as I can remember), you can close all open Excel documents if you press Shift and select Close (which has changed to Close All).

    That’s the feature I don’t see and sorely miss!!


  20. s_tec says:

    Browny: A lot of program still use escape for legit purposes within the program. In Mathematica, for example, it lets you enter and exit symbol entry mode, while many drawing programs use it to drop the current tool and return to selection mode. Are you sure that using escape to exit programs is a good idea?

  21. T says:

    If you can’t get used to blue gradients you should probably kill yourself because you’re not the kind of genetic stock humanity needs to continue.

  22. Claw says:

    I hate programs that use the Esc key to close.  Sometimes I might accidently start resizing the window and want to cancel it so I press Esc.  Instead the entire window closes.

  23. Required says:

    I would say that people like closing via the upper-left not because they’re stuck in their ways, but because it’s just more efficient.  Just look at your typical browser (or really any other application), everything’s in the upper left.  The only reason to ever drag your mouse over to the right side is to minimize, a pretty rare action (maximize can be done by double-clicking anywhere on the title bar).

    For those that argue that closing is a rare/destructive action that should be isolated, I disagree – I open/close windows ALL THE TIME, quickly checking documents, photos, etc.  But I will say the double-clicking behaviour is a plus in that regard, since it gives a little measure of confidence.  I do know I’m hesitant with the OS X close buttons, and I think it’s probably due to the lack of double-clicking.

  24. steveg says:

    Are there any plans to capitulate on any of the other non-standard features/experiments in Beta2?

    I’d like to see office logo become a menu labelled "File" or a tab labelled File (even an option would be fine please, Marketing Dept).

    I’d like to see a Windows menu equivalent (to swap between multiple documents).

    I’d like all features to be usable without a mouse (I expect it’s a bug where it’s not. I’ve been Frowning as I spot them).

    I’d like the File menu to have no buttons on it. (Options + Exit to be menu items).

    I’d like About to be in the same location as other applications.

    While I appreciate the Help menu has reverted to its Windows <= 3.0 location, can we have the >= 3.1 location back, where it’s next to the last menu, not left-justified (and maybe bigger).

    I’d like all the little "Group expansion control" turn into a control that looks like a control, and for them to behave as either toggles or … depending on how they behave (and use the entire name of the Group as the "hot" area rather than just a tiny square).

    I’d like the Office team to pat themselves on the back for a job pretty well done.

  25. Ben C. Kirk says:

    All this talk of the "case of the missing control menu icon" is all well and good, but what about the other button that is now missing from the Northwest Corner: The New button.

    Here’s the scenario:

    I’m in Word (or Excel or PowerPoint) and I want a new, blank document, in one click. Ha! No chance. (And, yes, I do know that I can press Ctrl+N, but I don’t want to do that: I want to click a button.)

    NB There IS a (conveluted) way to add a button to the QAT that does this. A button that should be there by default, I might add.

    It’s time for my therapy session now; thank you for listening.

  26. TC says:

    "Soon, I’ll explain a bit about the design we decided on and the thought process behind it."

    Please tell me the design has more standards in mind than the current one. Then again, after checking out Vista Beta 2 today from the public download… wow. There’s not really such a thing as interface standards in Windows anymore.

  27. Kam VedBrat says:

    I just read Jensen’s post about the history of the close button and it made me chuckle. You see, when…

  28. Ray says:

    I myself am a former user of Windows 3.11, heck, even WIndows 3.1 itself, and yeah, i’m a ‘double-click left icon’ junky, i find it the most efficient way of closing the window.

    It got stuck, i can’t unstick it, it’s 2nd nature to double click the product icon, i find it easier than the cross in the upper right corner, hell, i have had newbies asking me how to close the window, i tell them, use the upper right cross, unfortunately, some windows have 2 crosses, which makes them even more confused, so, it’s easier just to tell them to double click the product icon.

  29. jokiz's blog says:

    i was reading a blog entry from a sole MS Office blogger from my feed list Jensen Harris where i found…

  30. Francis says:

    I second changing the Office icon menu back to trusty old "File."

    One thing that could be sorted out is the inconsistent behavior of right-clicking on the control menu. Sometimes it brings up the standard control menu (i.e., same as left-clicking), other times it brings up a context menu (without maximize, minimize, resize, restore, close), and in rare instances, it does nothing. To wit:

    Word (2003) main window:

    right and left clicks open control menu

    Word document window:

    left click opens control menu;

    right yields nothing

    Windows explorer folder window:

    left click opens control menu;

    right click brings up context menu

  31. I am a left-double-clicker too.  And it bites me everytime I boot up an alternative OS, or an app that doesn’t use the standard windows conventions for toolbars and titlebars.

  32. [ICR] says:

    I never even knew about the Left Double Click before (actualy, I think I discovered it once before by accident) But since reading this, I’ve automatically used it on a number of occasions without even thinking or trying to train myself (on non-maximised windows) Wow, it’s infectuous.

  33. Browny:

    You missed one: a dedicated Close button on the Standard toolbar. For as long as I can remember, I’ve added one when there wasn’t one (borrowing a button image where needed), but recent versions of Office apps have usually had one by default, I think. I have never gotten into the "wrong X" trap in SDI because I always close Word docs one by one (and I leave Word running from startup to shutdown anyway).

  34. Shruti says:

    The "problem" with having more than one way of doing the same thing is that it increases complexity. Since we’re all reading a tech blog, we’re all comfortable, and stubborn, about doing things the way we like. But for a novice user, having more than one way of doing something is increasing the complexity of the program, which therefore lessens mastery and leads to feelings of inadequacy.

  35. Jo-Pete says:

    Somehow, I picked up the weird habit of hitting alt+space then "c" to close a window. It works on almost every windows-based program I use. I guess the reason is because alt+F4 is a difficult reach for one hand and I don’t use the F keys very often (except F5). My method might be more keystrokes, but they’re all right there at the same spot and can easily be done with the left hand.

  36. Doug says:

    Not trying to nitpick, but wasn’t the alt-space shortcut alt-space chosen in the Windows 1.0 days? Because then, the icon for the system menu  was a "three-slice toaster", something like the character ≡.


    (Not that the explanation for the shortcut is wrong, it just doesn’t look nearly so much like a space bar in that picture.)

  37. Rocky says:

    Ben C. Kirk: You can add the New button to the quick access toolbar so that you only need to click once.

  38. Wictor says:

    Good to have the ol’ good way of closing apps back.

    Alt-F4 is the second favorite of mine to close an app. But that has disappeared on messsages in Outlook 2007!! Instead you have to close it with the mouse or press Escape! Why this?

  39. Wictor says:

    Follow up to my comment. Alt-f4 works now after I restarted my computer. Bug in OL2007?

  40. John Topley says:

    Ok, so who else double-clicks title bars to toggle between minimized and restored?

  41. Mat Hall says:

    Not really relevant to this post, perhaps, but after a week or so of using Word 2007 exclusively, all I can say is that the new or improved features are nice, but the UI is the WORST THING EVAR!!!11!!1!1!!ONE!!11

    Hyperbole aside, the contextual ribbon tab switching doesn’t work properly (one example — it switches to the picture tab if you click on a picture unless, it appears, you’ve done anything else to the document since inserting the picture), some repeated operations (like inserting a bunch of things) takes an extra click each time, some things have been moved arbitrarily, the UI is a hodge-podge of shiny widgets and hideously ugly dialogues, the "faint blue widgets on a faint blue title bar" controls in the top left are an accessability nightmare, and the whole thing is, quite frankly, painful.  (I’m one of those "all the toolbars, all the time" people, so everything I could ever need is always visible; now I have to spend time futzing around picking the right tab — all the ribbon is, it seems, is a big-ass toolbar, and only one can be visible at once.)

    While the Word UI is pretty bad, the Access UI is completely unworkable.  As far as I can make out there’s no way of doing away with the tabbed interface, so it’s impossible to see, say, the relationships window and the table design view.  You also can’t have the field list and properties window visible in the report or forms designer, the F6 behaviour in table design view has been utterly shafted, and it is almost completely unusable for anything other than a mickey-mouse database.  (On the other hand I do like the objects pane on the left — much nicer than the database window; it’s not enough to overcome the HUGE flaws, though.  It’s probably ok if you’re just *using* a database, but creating one is a no go; perhaps that was the intention…)

    Me, I’ll be sticking with 2003…

  42. Jamax says:

    It you miss the button in the upper left nothing happens, you just move the mouse a bit and click it (or raise the window if now obscured).  In the upper right you miss the button and you have to move the mouse all the way to the upper-right of the screen, click restore, then try again or else the program comes up next time with a maximized window -or- move the mouse to a variable location on the task bar and right click and select close (or do even more work by moving the mouse back up to the close button and trying again).

    Closing with the upper-left is *far* easier so anybody that knows about it will prefer it.  Also explains post about being ‘hesitant’ to click close on Mac OS X.  Duh.

  43. peterchen says:

    I was programmed on click-and-hold, drag to "Close", release. I don’t know why, but it worked very well.

    Until IE turned the "click-drag on system menu" into creating a shortcut (I’m not sure if it was IE4 or 5)

    Took me years to get rid of that habit, mainly because it still worked in most applications.


    Upper left is definitely closer, as I maximize/restore by double-clickign the title bar, and "minimize" by clicking on System tray (again, it’s some IE versions that break that behavior)


    remove-or-keep is tricky: I agree remove = "feel-good" for novices, but power users will feel patronized.

  44. TechieBird says:

    Two things: first, I cut my teeth on Win3.1, supported it for about three years, and I can’t remember the last time I double-clicked to close.  (Alt+F4, Cancel button, Alt+F then X, Right-click task button and Close, just about everything except double-click.)

    Second, the top-left Control menu absolutely *should* stay unless someone writes another way to easily get back apps that have managed to get stuck somewhere off-screen where you can’t see them.  (Have seen this happen with some desktop management software when you switch views.)

    Oh, and I absolutely agree about keyboard shortcuts.  I use KVM switches frequently and the mouse connection frequently doesn’t initialise properly.  I still drop out to Win3.1 keyboard shortcuts and carry on working to the amazement of my whippersnapper colleagues who never heard of such a thing ;o)

  45. comankha says:

    left close widget:



    atari st


  46. says:

    Jensen Harris has a neat post with some history on the close button entitled You Windows 3.1 Lovers! He also…

  47. Bill Gerrard says:

    Thanks for accomodating alt-spacebar users. I sincerely hope Office 2007 will also accomodate users who cannot STAND those horrible new color schemes! Blue or Black, both are horrible. Please include a plain "Classic" appearance, otherwise I just won’t be able to upgrade.

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  49. productmanagerCP says:

    Does anyone know when right-click taskbar close became a windows convention?  Does it even count as a windows convention?  Trying to figure it out if our (desktop software) product needs it.  Personally I use it all the time.

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