Fact of life: People can’t see things that are right in front of them


A bug report came in:

When I go to the Power Options control panel and select Edit Plan Settings, the Turn off display combo-box is disabled. Is this a bug?

Shortly thereafter, this response was submitted:

Do you see a big yellow warning over the Turn off display that says that some settings are managed by your system administrator, and a link called Why can't I change some settings?

The reply:

Yes, my machine is joined to a domain, and I see that yellow warning.

This is a fact of life. People can't see what is right in front of their face. Even though there's a warning right above the disabled item explaining that it can't be changed due to an administrative setting, even though there's a link on the page whose text directly addresses the issue they are asking about, even though they confirm the existence of the explanatory text when asked, they still don't read it or understand it. It's another case of inattentional blindness. You are so focused on the task of clicking on the combobox that you completely disregard any other information because you simply aren't expecting it to be there.

Comments (62)
  1. John Sampaziotis says:

    Suggestion to create havok:

    In addition to the current CBOX states (checked, unchecked, grayed) add a new state: CAN’T TOUCH THIS.

    a) It shouldn’t look like grayed. It should look like checked/unchecked but perhaps a bit more fuzzy

    b) It should be clickable. Clicking it would display WHY you can’t/shouldn’t click it :)

    Since the old behaviour (disabled) is not affected, NO programs whatsoever would be broken from this addition.

    And people will eventually learn to read the notes.

    .. and see what (strange things) happen…

  2. Richard says:

    Inattentional blindness?

  3. Tomi says:

    I’ve not seen the warning in question, and don’t know either its exact wording (I’m sure google would help here), nor how exactly it appears graphically in relation to the "Turn off display" combo box, but reading the above gave me the vague feeling that maybe the message isn’t quite clear enough for many.

    If the message is as stated above (some settings etc), or if it isn’t immediately next to the setting, the user might not be able to mentally connect the two. Maybe the warning icon should be shown on the combo boxes which are disabled? Hopefully with a tooltip describing the reason (stated with "this setting" etc).

  4. DDanster says:

    Anybody remember the book "The Design of Everyday things"?

    On of the principles there is "if you have to put a sign out, you’ve already failed".  Sounds to me like the message was put there as an afterthought….

    This is a GUI problem.  The simple fact of GUIs is if a user sees a combo box greyed out, they believe they can do something to get it active again and change it.  You won’t let them…

    You need to reorganize the GUI somehow so it is more clear…

  5. Zian says:

    <i>The simple fact of GUIs is if a user sees a combo box greyed out, they believe they can do something to get it active again and change it.  You won’t let them…</i>

    But they can. They can call the IT department, ask an admin to change the group policy (or whatever else is needed), and go on their merry way.

  6. Starfish says:

    Suggestion to create havok:

    In addition to the current CBOX states (checked, unchecked, grayed) add a new state: CAN’T TOUCH THIS.

    CreateWindow("COMBOBOX", "", CBS_HAMMERTIME, …

  7. Mr Cranky says:

    First, the real WTF is allowing “administrators” to disable so many innocuous settings.  It merely caters to the megalomania of support geeks.  Who in general are willing to nearly disable corporate computers so the support staff won’t be bothered with any more user problems than necessary.  

    Second, it might be better to make disabled features disappear rather than to tease the user with something he can’t do, and never will be able to do.  In fact, the admin goonsXXXXeeks at my employer have reduced the display properties dialog to a single tab (Settings).

    [Choose your support call. (1) “Why is this disabled?” (2) “Why is this missing?” -Raymond]
  8. Thom says:

    My dad was looking for a measuring cup he uses to meter out his lawn chemicals.  He searches the garage but can’t find it.  He accuses my mom of doing something with it and argues for five minutes before he comes to me and accuses me too.  "No, but I saw it sitting atop the table in the garage – it’s right next to the soft drinks," I tell him.

    He leaves and returns several minutes later complaining that he can’t find it.  I tell him more specifically, "It’s sitting on top of the long table that’s next to the soft drinks. It’s right on the corner near the edge.  It was half full of seeds and there are seeds all around it."

    He leaves.  Twenty minutes later he returns again.  He still can’t find it.  He’s searched the entire garage.  He’s searched the entire (huge) unattached garage too.  There’s no measuring cup to be found.  There’s no measuring cup on top of any table, anywhere.  He’s having a hissy fit.  I repeat once more about the seeds.  He saw the pile of seeds on the table, he moved the seeds, there’s no cup.  

    I tell him, "if I get up and that cup is sitting where I told you I’m going to shove it up your a$$."  He says I won’t find it, it’s not there, one of us did something with it – so I go to look.  I do no more than step one foot outside the door and look toward the table before I see the cup sitting right on the corner of the table, half full of seeds, and surrounded by a pile of seeds he’s obviously moved around.

    I step back inside and tell him to he’d better bend over.  After a brief moment of accusation before he realizes that I was never out of his sight so I couldn’t have found and placed the cup there he follows me out the door and sees it.  He’d been staring at it, walking past it, working around it for 30 minutes and yet he’d overlooked it and accused us all of doing something with it.

    I’d like to blame this on his age (70) but he’s been doing this for at least 40 years.  Screaming, yelling and blaming – it goes on for minutes to hours several times a week.  Whatever’s "lost" or "misplaced" or "moved" or "taken" or "straightened" is always found sitting right where he left it and that’s usually right where he’s looking.

    Yeah, try telling him to click a button or check box on the computer screen.  You can stand behind him, describe the screen and give him directions that a young child could follow but you’ll almost always end up leaning over him and touching the screen to show him the spot instead.  Even explaining the most simple task will leave you pulling your hair out.

    No, he’s all there, or at least mostly so (that’s been changing the last 5 years) and there are no other "problems."  He just seems to form a mental picture of what he’s looking for, how he remembers a thing to be, or what he expects to find.  Then if what’s before him doesn’t match he fails to see it.

    It drives my mom crazy.  He goes shopping, reads her list, forms a picture of what he thinks or remembers the packaging to look like and he buys what matches.  He’ll pick it up and not even read it to see he’s grabbed the wrong item.  

    Fun, fun, fun – when people can’t see things that are right in front of them.

  9. Brooks Moses says:

    Mr. Cranky: You mean like the "sharing" tab for sharing internet connections, which is only present in the dialog box if one’s logged in as Administrator?  The one that I spent a good hour looking for, because I was sure the sharing settings were in the dialog box somewhere, but I couldn’t find them (because I wasn’t logged in with the right permissions)?

    Yeah, I’d like to lose that hour every time I’m looking for something.  One of the very big advantages of Windows is that nearly all of the settings are discoverable by the click-around-and-look process.  This would break that, bigtime.

  10. Scott says:

    The trouble is people connecting "some settings" with "this setting I’m looking at".  Maybe you could add arrows or something.

  11. No one of consequence says:

    People are so used to the constant bombardment of useless / meaningless warnings from Windows – the sort of "cancel or allow" crap that Apple poked fun at last year – that on the rare occasions a useful message is presented, nobody even sees it.

  12. Triangle says:

    Tuesday, January 01, 2008 2:49 PM by Scott

    The trouble is people connecting "some settings" with "this setting I’m looking at".  Maybe you could add arrows or something.

    That is quite possibly the biggest UI faux pas one can make. See http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2005/10/25/484602.aspx.

  13. JamesNT says:

    This could also be a case of someone submitting a bug report because they want some attention or a case similar to

    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2007/12/18/6793468.aspx

    True Story: At my college, that I have since graduated from, a new CIS building was being built and the surrounding area was marked off with signs stating "KEEP AWAY FROM THIS AREA."  Students frequently walked across the area anyway.  When one was stopped by a campus officer and asked why she disobeyed the sign she said, "What sign?"

    JamesNT

  14. Brooks Moses says:

    I’m reminded of the time I was working in a lab, and had a piece of somewhat-jury-rigged equipment that was designed to pull a probe up and down inside a wind tunnel — or, more accurately, to pull it down, and then one would manually pull it back up for the next test run.  The failure state, of course, is that the system had no way of knowing if one had manually reset things or not — so, if one didn’t reset it, it would just pull the probe through the floor of the tunnel, breaking it.

    Thus, I put a label in large alarming red letters next to the "GO" button on the GUI that started the probe, explaining that the probe needed to be reset before a run or else the probe would break.  And I explained this to the people who’d be using it.

    (And, yes, DDanster, it was a "bad" design for UI.  More accurately, the design required an intelligent and attentive user as part of the system, as grad-student effort was a lot easier to include in it than building a system that could implement a "push the probe up until it hits something, but don’t stop if it’s just a little stuck" operation reliably with just robotics.)

    Soon thereafter, we found that one of the grad students had run it without resetting it, and had broken the probe.  (He wasn’t actually supposed to be running it at all, IIRC, but wanted to collect some data and decided to use the system without asking anyone how to use it.  He did that a lot.)

    The solution in this case was to set up a simple numeric interlock, wherein one had to enter a trivial hardcoded-into-the-script-code passcode before the system would run.  I figured that anyone smart enough to look it up was smart enough to read the warning label, and that proved to be correct.

  15. Jens says:

    First, the real WTF is allowing "administrators"

    to disable so many innocuous settings.

    Don’t even get me started. Incompetent administrators at my school configured all the computers in the lab to run at 1024×768 @ 60hz and completely locked down everything. I can’t work in those conditions, so I bring my old Thinkpad P2 300 Mhz to school to type my reports on. The pain of working on a P2 is far less than the migraine caused by CRT displays at 60 hz.

    I looked up the specs for those monitors, and they’ll do 100 hz no problem.

  16. Xepol says:

    I’ve always maintained that you can write a warning in 4 foot high flashing red letters on a yellow background and most users will still fail to notice it.

    A teacher who taught User Interface Design disagreed, and insisted that it was just the result of bad interfaces.

    In the many years since then, I have never once found reason to divurge from my point of view.  Oh, certainly, there are bad interfaces out there, and thedailywtf.com is replite with examples of such, but this does not change the fact that most users insist on shifting their brain into the OFF position when interacting with computers and things that would normally make sense to them are suddenly as baffling as trying to find that "any" key on the keyboard.

    Sadly, my experience has shown that software interfaces work best when designed for the brain dead.  Expect a user to think and suddenly you are in trouble.

    This is a great example.  Instead of just using a warning and disabling some controls, changing the control to a message saying "set by domain policy" or something similar, would probably reduce the confusion.

    It also makes the interface significantly more annoying to code. <sigh>

  17. Raymond II says:

    I had a short talk with a psychologist about these "obvious" messages and general computer users.  It boiled down to apathy.  They are presented with something they perceive overwhelmed by (a computer), with so many different contexts that they simply become apathetic, and completely miss the most obvious message.

    (Not to change the discussion, but regarding administrative restrictions; if you click on the clock in the hopes of checking the calendar, and the system has restrictions on changing the time, you get a message saying you’re not allowed to change the time! But you only wanted to look at the calendar.)

  18. Andrew R says:

    I just really hope that the 4th message in that little dialogue was simply; Bug Closed as ‘not a bug’.

    Draw a line somewhere and stick to it.  The less intelligent you require your users to be, the less intelligent they are.

    I know exactly the combobox Raymond is talking about.  This story has nothing to do with Microsoft or Windows, it is purely a case-example of a user somewhere who simply "doesn’t get it" – despite (or possibly BECAUSE of) being coddled and lead all the way to the finish line they remain staring, dumbfounded, at the tape.

  19. Henry Bob says:

    Yes, Raymond II, but that is because the clock is just a shortcut to the Date/Time control panel which obviously isn’t intended to be used as a calendar application.

    Why it was designed this way instead of, say, bringing up a larger clock (like the one available in earlier versions of Windows) with a calender is anyone’s guess, but I guess you can’t go back and change the past.

    At least Vista has a calender.

  20. Evan says:

    @Raymond II, about the calendar:

    This was actually addressed before, see http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2005/06/21/431054.aspx

    (The comments in this thread are particularly interesting too, IMO.)

    It probably should have been "fixed" earlier, but Vista does finally behave as people seem to want.

  21. Vorn says:

    Did anyone else try to click on "Why can’t I change some settings?", what with the blue text?

    Or am I just kinda lame?

  22. Name required says:

    Logically, the guy reporting the issue is right, and Microsoft is wrong.

    From the fact that the administrator can disable some options, you cannot deduce that this specific option is disabled for that reason, esp. since there are other prevalent causes for combo-box disabling.

    If this is an important issue, the link should have showed ‘the administer disabled bla blah’ or better yet, for every greyed out combo, have a ‘why’ button.

  23. Jivlain says:

    Vorn: it /was/ a link in the UI itself – the text would have appeared like that to the user.

  24. Dean Harding says:

    Name required: Why would you expect that every grey-ed out checkbox would have a redundant "why?" button, when a single "Why can’t I change some settings?" link tells you all you need to know?

  25. Jeff Lewis says:

    This is really two different and mostly unrelate issues.

    The first is the real point of the post: that people have predetermined expectations of behaviour and so when you violate their expectations (which is easy to do since you’re not them) they tend to ignore anything that *they* don’t see as being relevent to the problem at hand.

    The people crossing the "DO NOT CROSS" area do it because maintaining safely and security in that area isn’t THEIR problem – and worse, 99.9999% of the time, there’s nothing there to give them reason to take the problem on as theirs other than a sign.

    Which leads to the other thread: IT lockdown madness. The IT manager defines (or has mandated) a set of goals. These goals are, for the most part, independent of the people who will be affected by them. The IT manager has no obligation to ensure that the end users aren’t inconvenienced – or even that they’re still able to do their work. The IT manager, on the other hand, will be directly affected if someone manages to do something they’re not supposed to be able to do.

    Guess who loses?

    Now, put these two back together… and you see the problem.

  26. Jonathan says:

    The driver for our floor’s printer (HP LaserJet 4200) did the right thing: For every admin-disabled setting, it had a pop-up saying why (much like the Windows XP "CAPS lock is on" for password prompts, which, I now discover, seems to be borked in Vista).

    It’s the best solution: When a single-minded user tries to set, say, the duplex printing checkbox, his attention is on that box, on not on a nearby warning. But if the warning comes out of that box, then the user will notice.

  27. Scout says:

    I got my nephew to try out our new touch-screen POS system.

    Everything worked for him except that no dockets would print.

    A quick investigation showed that there was a "Printer Error" message flashing in the bottom right hand corner of the screen in big red letters.

    Jimi couldn’t see it.

    Unfortunately, the background was green, the letters were red, and Jimi is color-blind.

    We put some new paper in the printer, told Jimi that he should wear a different color shirt, and everything started to work again.

    (Except for Jimi’s shirt.  He picked an orange one)

  28. momo says:

    When I go to the website The Old New Thing, I cannot find any new articles.

    Have you stopped blogging?

    [Try turning the monitor around so the bright side faces you. -Raymond]
  29. Aaron says:

    Greyed out UI controls are just evil.  If you want people to feel at home and in control with your environment, stop locking the doors behind their back.  You’re limiting the user, revoking their rights to move around freely, without the nicety of habeas corpus.  How does the user ask "why can’t I open this door"?  He can’t.  Sometimes a bit of thought yields a working theory.  Sometimes there’s a big "condemned" sign he drove past on his way in.  The lucky ones have a professional agent well versed in the rules of the local jurisdiction to support him.  And sometimes he has to poke and prod, do his best to circumvent his jailer so he can get back into his home.  

    People need something to /do/, a way to ask that question.  So here’s my question: Why isn’t it immediately obvious to the UI designers that degraded controls need to be clickable?  That clicking on a grayed out checkbox should yield an explanation, a justification for it’s status?  Please, tell me, what am I missing?

    I agree with the initial post, that a different visual indicator is required since the current behavior is so well established.  But I’d like to see the current behavior go away entirely.

  30. poochner says:

    Back in the big iron days when I was in college, I worked in the data center.  The CS department also had most of its offices in that building, but organizationally, Computing Services was more aligned with facilities, and Computer Science more aligned with academia.  Nevertheless, every term students would come into our office and ask where their computer science classes were.  We didn’t have a schedule, we were under different vice presidents for goodness sake!  So, we wrote a sign on a punch card and hung it in the door.  You had to move the sign to come in the door.  The sign said "We aren’t the computer science department.  We don’t know where your classes are.  That department’s offices are upstairs…" blah blah.

    More than one person started to come in, stopped, READ THE SIGN, moved it out of the way, and asked where their classes were.

  31. ender says:

    Don’t even get me started. Incompetent administrators at my school configured all the computers in the lab to run at 1024×768 @ 60hz and completely locked down everything.

    Heh, it was the same for me at the university – except that I didn’t have a laptop yet back then, so I wrote a small program that could change the resolution (which for some reason worked). Some of classmates also started using it, and then it somehow became a habit to set the computers to 320×200 before leaving (the program let you pick any resolution supported by the graphic card).

    As for reading the warnings, I kinda gave up on the users to notice them. I maintain an installer for a popular open-source program, and in the years on working on it learned that the user will click away and ignore anything and everything and then complain when something doesn’t work. At one time, thing have gone so far that I set up a filter in my e-mail program to automatically respond with solution when certain keywords were found in the incoming e-mail.

  32. Window is fond of showing a setting as read-only then providing a button to open another dialog box to change it, yet they didn’t opt for a similar design here where it may actually solve a problem. It should show the setting as read-only (not disabled), and put a link beside it labeled “Change” (or “How to change”), that provides documentation regarding the need for admin access. If there are multiple contiguous settings requiring admin, draw a frame around them and have one Change link.

  33. Doug says:

    I have noticed a paradoxical effect that information displayed with large fonts and different colors can be harder to see.  When information is displayed in a regular font on a regular background it is much easier to read.

    Ever go looking for something in a store.  You look up and down the aisles and can not find it only to later discover that it is in a large display on the aisle end?

  34. James says:

    Replacing the combo box with ‘Setting overridden by your Administrator’s Group Policy’ would have avoided this particular problem…

    As others have pointed out, Windows doesn’t actually tell the user that *this* setting is overridden by an external policy: for all they know, perhaps this monitor doesn’t have DPMS support, or it’s a bug in the video card driver, or the power saving has been disabled by some over-zealous distributed computing client – or, as a few video cards seem to like doing, perhaps that particular setting has been hijacked and moved into the video card manufacturer’s own control panel application. Actually saying ‘*this setting* is disabled because of *that* configuration’ would be much more use.

    (Thanks to the semi-devolved administration of systems where I work – centrally-controlled user accounts with their own Windows group policies and mandatory profiles, but departmentally-controlled client systems with another set of group policies, I seem to spend a lot of time fighting with these things. Getting around the restrictive registry entries in the mandatory policy involved a lot of pain in the early days…)

    Somehow, though, this all reminds me of a recent bug report from a beta tester which amounted to: "software doesn’t work when dongle is removed". *headdesk*

  35. Merus says:

    I would have interpreted the same situation as being, "Is this checkbox not working a bug, or does that warning up there apply to it?". I’ve seen bugs that were accepted by users as being by design because the nature of the bug was such that it seemed to fit right in.

    Of course, that probably says something about my design.

  36. SuperKoko says:

    "No one of consequence" wrote:

    > People are so used to the constant bombardment of useless / meaningless

    > warnings from Windows – the sort of "cancel or allow" crap that Apple poked

    > fun at last year – that on the rare occasions a

    > useful message is presented, nobody even sees it.

    I’m used to carefully read every *new* message I ever get (in any OS or any application). For old messages that I recognize in half a second I take the appropriate action immediately.

    Is that so hard to recognize a new message?

    I think many users don’t read messages because they deem they’re *hostile*. They’re confusing the symptom with the disease.

    They do this fallacious correlation-is-implication reasoning. "When there’re no error messages, everything works and when there’re error messages, things don’t work, so, error messages do break my system! They’re evil!"

    With that, we get funny dialogs such as:

    "When my computer starts up, it displays a message and I’ve to click [OK]. How can I remove it permanently? This has been bothering me for months"

    "What does the message says?"

    "I haven’t read it, I just want to remove it!"

    Lazyness, fear of technical terms (such as "file" or "directory")… Other factors concur to people not reading warnings or error messages.

  37. Igor Levicki says:

    In case I wasn’t clear enough, let me explain:

    User comes to Event Log to see logged error messages and to act upon them in hope of correcting the problem, not to learn that the event description text box “displays a text description of the event”.

    Likewise, user comes to Edit Plan Settings to change plan settings, not to learn why he cannot change them.

    [I still claim tenuous, since the reasons for the two scenarios are completely different, and it’s the psychology behind the reason that is the topic. The example I chose was merely to motivate the topic, it wasn’t the topic itself. Perhaps I should’ve used a different example. -Raymond]
  38. Igor Levicki says:

    “I still claim tenuous, since the reasons for the two scenarios are completely different”

    And the instructions people don’t see which you are mentioning are there because…?!?

    Because Windows UI is preventing the user from doing something they want to do (hint: change plan settings).

    Now I have to take out my analogy gun:

    You need a toilet. It costs 25 cents to use it.

    Normal way: There is a cabin with a coin slot and a sign next to it which says “Insert 25 cents to use the toilet” and you can enter the cabin once you insert the coin.

    Microsoft way: There is a cabin, you enter, take your pants down, dirty your hands, and then you notice the coin slot on the locked toilet seat and a sign saying “Insert 25 cents to use the toilet”.

    Now if you are so into psychology perhaps you can analyze what sort of reactions will those two completely different approaches addressing the same problem provoke from users. Perhaps Wendy could chime in at this point. Maybe both of us are wrong?

    [You’re saying the instructions should’ve been at the top of the dialog box instead of next to the disabled combo box? Whatever. I don’t care any more. I should’ve used the hidden prize example instead of the yellow warning message. My mistake. End of thread. Actually I think I’m going to delete this entire discussion since it’s pointless. -Raymond]
  39. Igor Levicki says:

    “You’re saying the instructions should’ve been at the top of the dialog box instead of next to the disabled combo box?”

    Please stop playing dumb, what I was saying is that you shouldn’t have allowed the user to enter the dialog where he is supposed to change settings if you did not intend to allow them to change settings.

    I thought that was pretty obvious, but it seems I have overestimated your comprehension skills.

    You can delete this discussion if you want, I have a copy and I will post it on my website if time allows.

    [Who’s playing dumb? Some of the settings can be changed, others cannot. If you don’t allow users to enter the dialog at all, then they can’t change the controls that they still have access to. But obviously you already considered that and I am unable to understand. Go ahead and call me stupid on your Web site. I’m used to it. -Raymond]
  40. Evan says:

    @Igor Levicki:

    I would say a better toilet analogy would be there are a bunch of port-a-johns sitting together.

    The way you suggest: hang a sign on each port-a-john saying that it’s out of order.

    Microsoft’s way: hang a sign along the trail to the port-a-john saying that they are all out of order.

    Also:

    “Please stop playing dumb, what I was saying is that you shouldn’t have allowed the user to enter the dialog where he is supposed to change settings if you did not intend to allow them to change settings.”

    (1) What if only some of the settings in the dialog are disabled?

    (2) You have merely pushed the problem up: now how do you explain why you can’t get to the dialog?

    [Getting the user to see the message isn’t the issue. The user saw the message just fine. “I see that yellow warning.” But the user didn’t process the information in the message. That’s my point. It’s my fault for choosing a bad title for the article. It should have been “Fact of life: People see things but don’t pay attention to them.” -Raymond]
  41. silky says:

    The person may say "Yes" because they assume the bubble is talking about something else [perhaps another field that is normally disabled].

    They may not realise that it applies to all bubbles.

    It’s clearly a common physiological fact, and a failure in the UI, not in the user.

  42. Igor Levicki says:

    Don’t get *me* started about UI…

    One of my favorites is Event Properties property sheet — it has textual error description like this:

    Faulting application vlc.exe, version 0.8.6.0, faulting module libffmpeg_plugin.dll, version 0.0.0.0, fault address 0x001adfa5.

    For more information, see Help and Support Center at http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/events.asp.

    Since the link above rarely gives any helpfull info next step is to select the text and copy/paste it into Google… except that when you right-click the text box you get that useless “What’s This?” popup which doesn’t give any contextually relevant information (i.e. related to the error itself).

    Why you don’t have “Copy Error Text” option in place of “What’s This?” is beyond me. I often forget that I have to press Ctrl+C and instead right-click which makes me deselect the text unless I remember that I can close the context menu by pressing Esc.

    [Thank you for complaining about something completely unrelated to the topic. -Raymond]
  43. Igor Levicki says:

    >Thank you for complaining about something completely unrelated to the topic.

    Oh but *you* fail to realize that to the end user who wants to perform a task “What’s This?” is equally useless to “Why can’t I change some settings?”. Perhaps you see the relation now that I wrote both in the same sentence?

    Windows UI is full of it.

    [I wrote about people failing to see instructions that are right in front of them. You’re complaining that a piece of Windows UI is preventing you from doing something you want to do. I maintain that the connection is tenuous. One is a matter of human psychology. The other is a bug. -Raymond]
  44. Miral says:

    +1 for stating why a given control is disabled on or next to the control itself.

    See, that little message saying that some things might be disabled by the administrator is at the bottom of the page, and it’s vague since it doesn’t mention *which* things it applies to.  The help link is equally unhelpful since it’s a generic page that doesn’t know which controls you’re talking about either.

    It’s not hard to see why people have trouble making the connection between the two.  Sure, we can point and laugh at the user for missing the “obvious”, but it’s not really all that obvious when you think about it (and think about the way that people’s minds work).

    So it’s a valid bug — sure, there was a good reason for the combo to be disabled, but the UI didn’t express that reason properly to the user.

    [I haven’t seen the page in action, but even conceding that the message could have been better positioned, it’s still interesting to me that the person said, “Yes I see the message,” and still ignored it. -Raymond]
  45. Igor Levicki says:

    “Some of the settings can be changed, others cannot. If you don’t allow users to enter the dialog at all, then they can’t change the controls that they still have access to.”

    Exactly!

    But the point is that the settings in a properly designed UI should be divided into those which user can change, and those which they cannot change.

    Those they cannot change should not be accessible.

    It all boils down to this — would you give the car keys to your child, put the warning about driving dangers next to the ignition keyhole and expect them to read (and heed) the warning, or would you rather not give the keys if you believe your child is irresponsible?

    “Go ahead and call me stupid on your Web site. I’m used to it.”

    I would never do such a thing because I know you are not stupid, you are just pretending that you don’t understand so that you can defend your (in this case biased/borked) point of view.

    [As I and others already mentioned in other comments, hiding the settings they cannot change has its own problems. -Raymond]
  46. Gazpacho says:

    I might not call it a problem with the UI or psychology, so much as poor communication on both sides. First by the user jumping to accusations, then by the responder making a passive-aggressive hint instead of answering directly ("The big yellow warning applies to the setting you want to change.")

    Not that I haven’t ever done the same.

  47. Igor Levicki says:

    "As I and others already mentioned in other comments, hiding the settings they cannot change has its own problems"

    I didn’t say they shoud be hidden.

    They should be inaccessible unless proper credentials have been provided. In this case, the credentials of the remote admin.

    Dialog in question could have had three tabs:

    +—-+———–+————+

    |User|Local Admin|Remote Admin|

    +—-+———–+————+

    User modifiable settings should be on the first tab, local admin modifiable on the second, and remotely administered settings on the third tab which could prompt for proper credentials and if they are not supplied display the current settings in read-only mode.

    I’d like to point out that in my opinion, if the user has local administrative priviledges, there should be no setting they cannot change.

  48. Gabe says:

    It seems like Igor would like the settings to move around based on who has access to change them. That would be bad because you would still not see items you expect to be there.

    The UI probably doesn’t even know who’s allowed to change which settings, just that some are not settable by the user. Some settings might require being a Network Admin, others might require being Server Admin

    On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t even help because the domain admin most likely made that setting with some group policy template. The proper way to change the setting is to either change the template or configure a different template to apply to that computer. Otherwise the setting will just get reverted back whenever the template is reapplied.

  49. Reginald Wellington III says:

    @Igor Levicki

    Wow, what a user-experience nightmare.  Let’s write a use case for it:

    1.  Bill opens the power options control panel.  It defaults to the "User" tab.
    2.  Bill doesn’t see desired setting, so clicks on Local Admin tab.

    3.  Local Admin tab prompts for credentials.  Bill clicks cancel, and the page shows up in read-only mode.

    4.  Bill still doesn’t see desired setting, so clicks on Remote Admin tab.

    5.  Remote admin tab prompts for credentials.  Bill clicks cancel and the page shows up in read-only mode.

    6.  Bill finds setting on Remote Admin tab.  Thankfully.  Imagine if he didn’t and had to go into another options dialog to look.

    Only 6 clicks per setting you want to find, worst case!  Congrats on getting your users to hate you unanimously.

    (You can tweak this design so it prompts for credentials only when changing settings, but that opens up a new set of usability problems.  Go ahead, really think about it and write some use cases for it and you’ll see)

    And once you fix all the problems inherent with your proposed design, you’ll end up at the design that Windows (and Apple and Linux) currently use.

  50. Igor Levicki says:

    >It seems like Igor would like the settings to move around based on who has access to change them.<<

    No I would not, moving settings around is not in accordance with UI consistency rule.

    I would want them logically divided into those that user can change and those that user can’t change.

    [That logical division would result in the settings moving around. (For example, a company might decide that employees are allowed to customize their screen saver timeout, except for employees with access to sensitive information for which the timeout is fixed at 5 minutes. The “screen saver timeout” setting has moved.) I’m sure you know this, so I must be misunderstanding your suggestion. -Raymond]

    @Reginald Wellington III:

    As 99% of Bills have local administrative privileges he would be asked for proper credentials only on remote admin tab.

    To me it seems that this whole “rights” nightmare is actually a consequence of Microsoft trying to be cheap (on development side) and sell the same product give or take few unimportant features to home and corporate users which then turns out inadequate for both.

  51. Evan says:

    "As 99% of Bills have local administrative privileges he would be asked for proper credentials only on remote admin tab."

    On Vista, this would display a UAC prompt. It’s not really asking for credentials, but it’s still another dialog.

  52. Faisal Nasim says:

    I think UI needs to evolve considerably. Users shouldn’t have to read a lot text on the screen, it should just come naturally. Imagine having everything labeled around you, say your chair has a note: "I am a chair. Before sitting please make sure none of the legs are broken and there is nothing on the surface which may ruin your clothes."

  53. Dorn says:

    I can’t really comment on dialog itself as I’ve never seen it.  Although I agree if the text is as described I would be unlikely to connect "some settings are managed" with "I can’t click on this box because my system admin is an ass".

    What I really want to comment on though is this "Why can’t I change some settings?" link.  Or as I call all such links in the windows UI: "Why doesn’t my crap work?".

    Long experience has taught me that anything which even remotely sounds like "Why is this crap broken?" will lead to a stupid HTMLized help box that leads me through a merry go-round of question/answers that are of absolutely no use.

    Probably I would of clicked on that particular link just to check but if it also leads to a stupid question/answer box I would of dismissed it immediately.

  54. Marjolas says:

    Igor. Dialog has many setting.  Setting are common sense grouped by function as should be.  Some setting default to edit by administrator only.  Some setting default to edit by all user.  Some setting default to edit based on group of user or ACL of user thus vary.  Some of default are be override by system policy set by administrator thus change between system/network/company based on administrator wish.  

    For your way dialog must be arranged different to each since there no exist a consistent/fixed group of setting that user can or cannot change.  Best could be done is group setting that are always consistent together and setting that can vary together.  The setting that can vary would still behave this same way, have same problem as now.  Also UI be more confused because similar setting no longer group together but separate by access right first so many duplicate location to check.

    My softwares keep such setting visible and enabled but notify user appropriate message when attempt to change.  Very difficult to account for all possibility and make message accurate with all user, group, policy change, and my software small not large and multilinguate like Windows.

  55. Igor Levicki says:

    >>…except for employees with access to sensitive information for which the timeout is fixed at 5 minutes…<<

    First, I believe screensaver timeout is something users should be able to set on their own.

    Second, screensaver should not be tied to workstation lockdown because those two things have completely different purposes. One of them serves to conserve engergy, the other one to prevent data theft.

    When they are tied together (as they are now) you have the following problems:

    1. If you set short timeout, you annoy the user who has to retype password way too often so he either:

    1a. Ends up using weak easy to remember and fast to type password.

    1b. Keeps pressing Ctrl or moving mouse to prevent screensaver from kicking in.

    2. If you set long timeout, then you are not preserving energy and your security gets weaker because of a larger time window during which someone could access the computer.

    Finally, hopefully screensaver timeout is not the only measure one should rely on to prevent data theft.

    You see, in my opinion, there is always a final solution to each possible problem, it is only a matter of how much you want to invest into finding it.

    For example, you could let the user change screensaver timeout, and leave login/lockout to dedicated devices. You could put RFID chips into employee name tags and as soon as they move away lock the workstation and let them unlock it manually by typing password when they get back. That way you wouldn’t have your moving settings.

    >>On Vista, this would display a UAC prompt. It’s not really asking for credentials, but it’s still another dialog.<<

    That is only so because UAC is a security afterthought and a bad design in itself. Prompting for permission to do something is useless because users will be annoyed and click on “Yes” anyway without reading. Prompting for credentials (sparingly if I might add) is in its own league.

    >>I think UI needs to evolve considerably.<<

    I couldn’t agree more with you. Well said.

    @Marjolas:

    That is exactly why I have said that it is wrong to target home and corporate users with the same product codebase.

    Today software vendors differentiate their products by merely disabling few advanced features while leaving UI the same.

    In my opinion that is wrong. I am aware that the cost of making two different UI versions could be prohibitive even for the richest companies but in that case you should not complain publicly about stupid/inattentive users who won’t bother to read warnings (which should not even exist!) on your crammed poorly thought out dialogs.

    [I encourage you to contact all the businesses that use Windows and ask for ways for central enforcement of screensaver timeouts. That way you can convince them that they don’t need it and we can remove the feature. -RaAymond]
  56. Gabe says:

    Igor, the whole point of UAC is for users to click "Yes" when they’re in the middle of doing something. The only time you’re expected to click "Cancel" is when you didn’t invoke the action. In other words, this mechanism is what prevents malware from performing administrative acts on the user’s behalf.

    I’m also curious how I decide when to buy all new software and retrain all my employees in order to switch my small company’s computers from home to corporate edition. What do you recommend?

  57. Triangle says:

    Sunday, January 06, 2008 8:23 PM by Gabe

    I’m also curious how I decide when to buy all new software and retrain all my employees in order to switch my small company’s computers from home to corporate edition. What do you recommend?

    Never installing the home edition in the first place. It’s useless for business anyway. Also, if your company is that small, you don’t have enough people that need retraining for it to be a large problem.

  58. Rob Moir says:

    "Never installing the home edition in the first place. It’s useless for business anyway."

    I wouldn’t say home version was useless for business. Depends on what the business is and what it does and what resources it uses. I work for large companies, the place I’m at now with just a few thousand users being the smallest place I’ve ever worked at.

    I wouldn’t use home editions of any software myself for the environments I work in, but I wouldn’t dictate to small businesses that they never touch home editions of windows. I’d suggest pro/business software might be more appropriate, but I know several small businesses that manage quite happily

    "Also, if your company is that small, you don’t have enough people that need retraining for it to be a large problem."

    Actually, for a small business, training is possibly more disruptive than for a large business. If your small business has two salespeople and one of them is off on a two day course then you’ve lost 50% of your salesforce for those two days. If the person that handles your accounting/payroll/general office is off on the course with them then the routine office admin tasks *and* your finances will grind to a halt for those two days.

  59. David Walker says:

    Speaking of putting stuff in front of users that they can’t see — in the kerfluffle about disabling opening of old file formats in Office 2003, one blog commenter says this:

    "Upon opening a file, regardless of security, anything perceived as insecure should be offered as a series of prompts and checks"

    That is SO not the right thing to do.  Ask the user a question he can’t answer, perhaps?

    Then the commenter goes further and offers this:

    "a REAL solution, would be to allow step-by-step execution of code, so that people could see what was supposed to happen, or be prompted for it, and at least have the potential to know what is going to happen."

    Wow, that is SO not user-friendly.

    From http://blogs.msdn.com/david_leblanc/archive/2008/01/04/office-sp3-and-file-formats.aspx

  60. Michael Mosley tests a theory by Richard Wiseman.

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