One person’s discoverable feature is another person’s annoyance


When I discussed the behavior of Windows XP SP2's autoplay dialog, one person suggested making the CD autoplay configuration dialog more discoverable to solve the problem of people not knowing how to get back to the dialog to change the settings later.

But what is the boundary between discoverability and annoying behavior?

Windows 95 drew a bouncy arrow pointing to the Start button to draw your attention to it, because usability testing revealed that it wasn't discoverable enough. Yet there existed a population of people who found the arrow downright annoying. And this even though it only appeared once; the moment you clicked on the Start button, the arrow went away forever. But for those people, apparently, even once is annoying.

The autoplay configuration dialog is in a somewhat intuitive place: It's a property on the CD drive itself. Though apparently it's not intuitive enough for some. Even the ultra-geeky Tweak UI PowerToy tells you this. Then again, maybe ultra-geeks are too cool to use Tweak UI.

The fact that many people don't realize where the autoplay configuration settings are kept could mean one of several things. First, it might mean that the location is still not discoverable enough. But configurating one's autoplay settings is hardly a common activity. Do you really want a balloon to pop up each time a CD autoplays saying "Click here to change your autoplay settings"? What if your default autoplay action was "do nothing"? Do you want a balloon to pop up saying "See, I'm not doing anything, just like you told me"? Moreover, if the CD you inserted launches a fullscreen game, the balloon won't be visible anyway, rendering the entire exercise moot.

Another possible reason why people don't find the CD autoplay configuration dialog is that it doesn't even occur to them that this is a configurable behavior; they simply don't even realize that the dialog exists. If you don't know that something exists, you certainly won't go looking for it. (This is why it is often said that a significant part of the scientific research process is merely asking the right question.)

Identifying this boundary and knowing when you've crossed is a hard thing to figure out. If you ask ten people, you will get ten different answers. The ability to strike a balance is one of those things you just develop a sense of from experience, supported by years of usability research.

Comments (28)
  1. Frederik Slijkerman says:

    Ok, we can customize what Windows does upon finding a certain type of CD. But how can I just turn off the complete AutoPlay behavior that searches the whole directory structure of the disc to determine the ‘disc type’?

  2. AC says:

    Isn’t this problem bound to the problem that for example USB sticks "forget" their autoplay? And where’s the main "autoplay off"? Is it only present in PowerToys and gpedit? (I’m asking from Win 2000 computer :) )

  3. Frederik Slijkerman says:

    Nevermind, I found the option in TweakUI…

  4. Brian Kemp says:

    You can use gpedit.msc (Just start-run it) to turn off Autoplay altogether.

    Computer Configuration – Administrative Templates – System. Turn off Autoplay = Enabled

    Apparently does not turn off for Music CD’s, so there is more to this equation…

  5. Adrian says:

    Maybe it shouldn’t be discoverable. Telling people how to bypass Autoplay can get you in trouble under the DMCA. ;-)

    http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,60780,00.html

  6. David Kitchen says:

    "The autoplay configuration dialog is in a somewhat intuitive place: It’s a property on the CD drive itself. Though apparently it’s not intuitive enough for some. Even the ultra-geeky Tweak UI PowerToy tells you this. Then again, maybe ultra-geeks are too cool to use Tweak UI."

    Hey you linked to my comment back then! ;)

    I should feel honoured. It’s not as WTF as it appears described though, nor ultra-geeky. I disable autoplay for all devices, and have several optical drives and a variety of removable drives… I never want any of them to do anything unexpected when I use them, so instead of faffing around configuring each drives behaviour, I use the gpedit control to simply turn it off everywhere. Because I do this, I simply don’t know what the default Windows way of doing it is… because I never encounter it ;)

  7. Staffan Larsen says:

    Why not put the configuration dialog in the Control Panel?

  8. In my opinion, there should be a mechanism that allows you to do full-text search of "settings dialogs," so you don’t have to know where to look. Kind of like searching the Control Panel in Windows Vista but even deeper. (Authors of such dialogs would have to opt-in and provide a reasonable entry point.)

    That way, after turning off AutoComplete in IE, changing an AutoPlay setting, etc. there would be one place I can look if I change my mind. (Not that I would change my mind about AutoComplete!) It would also give me the confidence to select "don’t ask me this again" on such dialogs!

  9. ArC says:

    I don’t mind too much about AutoPlay except that there is a separate AutoPlay behaviour for each ‘type’ of CD, which means you go and set "do nothing" many, many times… at least, until you discover where to set it for all types all at once.

  10. Auto-don`t says:

    Here`s an idea: how about automatically disabling autoplay and forgetting that this stupid (and dangerous) feature ever existed ?

  11. Stu says:

    Easy, put a "Change autoplay settings" button on the box that asks you what to do when you insert a disc/USB pen/whatever.

    Also, why is it that devices get labeled as containing "pictures" so often? I’ve had drives with plenty of word docs, vb source code, programs, micellaneous types and a few images, yet when I plug it in, windows tells me that it contains "pictures", despite the fact that its not even the most common file type on the drive? What algorithm is windows using?

  12. Stu: And pushing that button would … redisplay the same dialog box?

  13. CornedBee says:

    For me, having autoplay config in the CD drive config is counter-intuitive simply because I don’t go looking for software configuration (and autoplay is something entirely software to me) in in a hardware configuration dialog (and that’s what the CD drive config is to me).

    Perhaps my perception is just wrong/different, but that’s the reason.

  14. Nate Silva says:

    Isn’t Autoplay a solution to a <i>different</i> problem? The problem being that when a CD or DVD is inserted it’s not obvious what to do next and where it can be found in the user interface.

    Solve that problem and Autoplay wouldn’t be necessary, and you get rid of the problems that come with it (like various media players spamming the Autoplay settings, or copy-protected CDs installing drivers that disable your ability to rip songs).

    The obvious comparison is to the Mac, where CDs are visible on the desktop and folders (not applications) on the disc can open automatically. That makes it easily locatable and obvious what to do next. However, the Mac has a different (better or worse, depending on your view) way of working and this solution doesn’t map well to Windows, which tends to hide the filesystem from the user.

  15. foxyshadis says:

    Windows putting an icon on the desktop for the duration of the cd’s time in would be cool, and for other removable devices. My computer doesn’t feel as natural as the desktop, but it’d have to be done just right. Of course, you double click on it… and get the autoplay box! The only other option is to have the system decide (or let applications decide for it) what to do, rather than the user, exactly the problem xp tried to avoid.

  16. Matthew W. Jackson says:

    The "Click here to start" arrow NEVER showed up for me once when running Windows for the first time. And I installed/reinstalled Windows 95 and 98 many times (from the first day 95 was released until after 98SE when I switched to 2000), so you’d think I would have seen it once or twice when I was supposed to.

    When I DID see it, however, and on numerous occasions, was after Explorer crashed and automatically restarted. It showed up nearly every time this happened.

    Seeing as Explorer is still pretty crash-happy for me, I’m glad this behavior has gone away.

  17. Whoa! I did not know it was there.

    The reason it’s not discoverable is that it wasn’t there the last time I checked a CD Drive’s property sheet back on 2k or ME or 98 or some such. The CD drive properties were useless back then, and so I learned to never look at them.

    Thanks.:)

  18. Byron Ellacott says:

    What I find odd is that iTunes can’t detect CD changes if AutoPlay is turned off. I’m not sure if that’s because iTunes/Win isn’t written well, or because XP rolled CD insert notification into autoplay and you can no longer have one without the other.

    Back to that dialog box, when you DO eventually find it, you’re doomed to disappointment. You can configure everything about autoplay except the one bit that’s really important: you can’t stop XP running j.random app on the disc. There’s no option for that. You have to totally disable all AutoPlay on all devices to get rid of that one bug. Crazy!

  19. Davo says:

    "But for those people, apparently, even once is annoying."

    I am one of those people who found once annoying.

    While it sounds rather petty when you just talk about a bouncing arrow, you need to remember that there are a lot of things in Windows that "just happen once". When you combine all these "just once" items together, that is when things get frustrating.

    One thing that particularly gets to me in a fresh Windows XP SP2 install is the two minutes of balloons popping up in the tray. "Do you want a tour?", "Do you want to protectect your computer?", "Do you want to activate windows?". Most of them only come up once.

  20. Joku says:

    A favorite topic!

    If the XP autoplay behaviour is going to be carried on to Vista, I’d atleast like that for non-DMCA countries there will be a check box in the autoplay dialog to disable it permanently for atleast the device type presented. When I am swapping in new SATA HDD’s to my laptop every few minutes, it is very annoying to see the autoplay start searching the drive every time. Since this is pretty common scenario with portable HDD’s and such being mainstream products now, you can’t expect me to use gpedit, regedit or tweakui to change this setting. If the device is in USB or Firewire and is mass storage, then don’t fookin autoplay or atleast give a check box to permanently deal with it.

  21. Norman Diamond says:

    And how does one disable Autoplay for external hard drives? TweakUI fortunately offers options to disable by drive letter, so if I assign some drive letters to hard drives and other drive letters to CD/DVD drives then it works for a while. But attach a hard drive that this XP installation hasn’t seen before and XP gladly starts searching 250GB to see what kinds of files you have (and often writes a restore point on the same external drive, really useful that).

    Even just searching a 4GB DVD takes long enough.

    Anyone remember the old days where if the root directory contained an autorun.inf then Windows would either execute it or ignore it, and if the root directory didn’t contain an autorun.inf then Windows would do nothing with it? Was that really so bad? But even TweakUI doesn’t seem to offer an option for that.

    As for whether the Autoplay tab is always available in device properties, I have my doubts. When attaching an external CD or DVD drive, it seems to be pretty much random whether XP is going to either (1) do an Autoplay with all the irritations mentioned above or (2) not do an Autoplay and not even offer an Autoplay menu entry in the right-click menu for the drive. In the latter case, I have a feeling there’s also no Autoplay tab in the properties, but I haven’t checked it recently.

    Also when XP automatically searches the entire contents of the drive, it seems to be random whether it will (A) offer "do nothing" as a possibility but refuse to remember it even though you click "remember this", or (B) not offer a "remember this" in the first place.

  22. PatriotB says:

    Byron wrote: "What I find odd is that iTunes can’t detect CD changes if AutoPlay is turned off. I’m not sure if that’s because iTunes/Win isn’t written well, or because XP rolled CD insert notification into autoplay and you can no longer have one without the other."

    On XP, autoplay is something handled by the shell (Explorer.exe). Basically, Explorer asks the CD drive to notify it when a disc is inserted. When Explorer gets this notification, it proceeds to launch autoplay/autorun.

    iTunes could also ask the CD drive to notify it when a disc is inserted–looks like it doesn’t do this. So it looks like the reason is "because iTunes/Win isn’t written well".

    [Disclaimer: I don’t use iTunes so this is an educated guess based on how I understand XP’s autoplay to work.]

  23. PatriotB says:

    Nate Silva said: "The obvious comparison is to the Mac, where CDs are visible on the desktop and folders (not applications) on the disc can open automatically. That makes it easily locatable and obvious what to do next."

    foxyshadis said: "Windows putting an icon on the desktop for the duration of the cd’s time in would be cool, and for other removable devices. My computer doesn’t feel as natural as the desktop…"

    If an extra icon on the desktop were the only thing that happened when you inserted a CD, I imagine most people would have no idea anything happened at all. If you have windows open, you probably won’t see it. If you have lots of icons already on your desktop, it would be hard to suddenly notice one more.

    Opening a window of some sort (e.g. folder window as Nate said) would be required.

    Regarding on the desktop or in My Computer: well, I think that since all other disks/drives are in My Computer, that that’s an appropriate place for CDs as well. I think Windows does a good job of keeping the required desktop icons to a minimum — by putting all your drives in My Computer, it not only keeps your hard drive free from, say, 4 hard drive icons, a floppy icon, and a CD-ROM icons, but it fits the desktop metaphor better too.

  24. PatriotB says:

    Adam Nathan said: "In my opinion, there should be a mechanism that allows you to do full-text search of "settings dialogs," so you don’t have to know where to look. Kind of like searching the Control Panel in Windows Vista but even deeper. (Authors of such dialogs would have to opt-in and provide a reasonable entry point.)"

    Hmm… sounds like Help to me. :)

  25. Nah mate says:

    In my opinion the problem is twofold.

    Firstly, not all hardware is the same as far as this kind of tweaking goes. There is no clear way to set the behaviour of a network card for example. (Yes, I know, Control Panel -> etc. but what I’m saying is that that is not consistent with the CD drive where you don’t have to go that route.)

    Seondly, there is no adaptation of the UI as people become more used to it, in just the way that you describe the Start button’s bouncing arrow behaved in Win 95 (I must be getting old because I can’t remember details that far back, which means senility is creeping in). Mind you, I don’t know any UI that does this well.

  26. Csaboka says:

    I would have no problem with this feature if it worked correctly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Even if I choose "Do nothing" for all available types, an Explorer window always pops up when I insert a disc into my DVD drive. Since I use Total Commander for file handling, I don’t need a bloody Explorer window stealing my focus and forcing me to close it every time.

    Discoverablity is useless if the discovered setting doesn’t work anyway… :/

  27. sfb says:

    "But for those people, apparently, even once is annoying."

    I didn’t want a tour of Windows XP when I installed my home PC. OK, fair enough.

    I also didn’t want a tour when I installed my work PC.

    I didn’t want a tour when repairing a broken hard disk on a laptop, and reinstalling everything recently.

    None of us wanted a tour when we spent a weekend installing Windows afresh on four offices of computers.

    Every "just once" action actually means "anything from once per month to thirty times in a day (or more)" for a support person. And it really can get really annoying sometimes.

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