Why can’t I set "Size all columns to fit" as the default?


A customer wanted to know how to set Size all columns to fit as the default for all Explorer windows. (I found an MSDN forum thread on the same subject, and apparently, the inability to set Size all columns to fit as the default is "an enormous oversight and usability problem.")

The confusion stems from the phrasing of the option; it's not clear whether it is a state or a verb. The option could mean

  • "Refresh the size of all the columns so that they fit the content" (verb)
  • "Maintain the size of all the columns so that they fit the content" (state)

As it happens, the option is a verb, which means that it is not part of the state, and therefore can't be made the default. (The cue that it is a verb is that when you select it, you don't get a check-mark next to the menu option the next time you go to the menu.)

Mind you, during the development cycle, we did try addressing the oversight part of the enormous oversight and usability problem, but we discovered that fixing the oversight caused an enormous usability problem.

After changing Size all columns to fit from a verb to a state, the result was unusable: The constantly-changing column widths (which were often triggered spontaneously as the contents of the view were refreshed or updated) were unpredictable and consequently reduced user confidence since it's hard to have the confidence to click the mouse if there is an underlying threat that the thing you're trying to click will move around of its own volition.

Based on this strong negative feedback, we changed it back to a verb. Now the columns shift around only when you tell them to.

I find it interesting that even a decision that was made by actually implementing it and then performing actual usability research gets dismissed as something that was "an enormous oversight and usability problem."

Sigh: Comments closed due to insults and name-calling.

Comments (30)
  1. John says:

    Exercise: Compare and contrast this complaint with xpclient's.

  2. No One says:

    This post should be required reading for everyone that ever complains about how Microsoft does anything ever.

  3. Mashmagar says:

    Perhaps the person posting the question on the forum would like it to stay as a verb, but have the verb automatically be applied when the window is opened or refreshed.

    In his or her defense, a clarification of "by default" was provided: "When I open any window with Details view, or change a view in already opened windowed to Details view – all columns will be automatically set to fit their content."

    [But opening and refreshing are the times the columns are most unstable! Because the view has to go retrieve the column information from each item, and the width grows erratically as new information is discovered. -Raymond]
  4. Antonio Rodríguez says:

    People bash Microsoft because they don't know how hard they try with usability tests and backward compatibility. And guess what? Most of them don't care at all! It's easier not to know, and telling the biggest software company does it wrong but you know how to correct it gives you a guru aura. I remember four years ago, after giving a lecture on the history of Apple using a Windows machine to project the images, a Linux "guru" criticized me for using an OS "with no memory or filesystem protection". At least, he listened and learned that Windows NT's security model is comparable to that of Linux. But how many people are out there feeding the ignorance?

  5. John says:

    @Antonio:  Ok, but it's a double-edged sword.  If you listen long enough to typical users and follow enough market trends eventually you come up with Modern UI.  I suppose I can't fault them for catering to their users, but if cell phone and tablet operating systems are the future of personal computing then I'm going to be sad.  Perhaps I am just on the wrong side of history.

  6. alegr1 says:

    "I opened a directory with a long file name, and now all I can see are the filenames. No size, no dates, nothing. I can't even resize the columns".

  7. alegr1 says:

    @Antonio:

    I say that those who say Linux is (by design) more secure than Windows, don't know neither Linux nor Windows.

  8. Joshua says:

    I've made it work all over the place. Why do you have a problem?

  9. Mike says:

    How about a keyboard shortcut then? (Might be one already but I don't know it). I have apps that popup select file dialogs all the time and I always have to switch to details, then sort by date, than resize the columns so I can see all the date etc. Having a quick way of doing these things would be nice for all "file listing" controls.

    [Ctrl+Numpad+. -Raymond]
  10. Rick C says:

    GSerg, would changing Explorer to use single-click to select help you?  It took me a lot of time to get used to it but I think it's mostly better.

  11. Brian_EE says:

    @GSerg: The standard File->Open and File-Save dialog controls have that same problem. It is quite annoying to say the least.

  12. xpclient says:

    GSerg, oh that infamous bug that is also probably the user's fault MS might say: social.technet.microsoft.com/…/94f1ad37-9110-4273-a473-ed02e36af386

  13. Skyborne says:

    I'd be interested in the usability testing behind the decision (introduced in Vista? I didn't notice before but I don't think XP had the hover effect) regarding whether a click is registered on the item or the folder it's in.  Although mousing over the item cell/row in list/details view highlights the entire item, right-clicking in the whitespace will not select the item; you get the folder right-click menu instead.  Left-clicking to select the item first, or right-clicking actual text, does.

    The rule applies to left-click, too–often, I grab this pre-lighted item and start dragging it off elsewhere, only to have the multiple-select box come up, scroll the window, and select a whole swath of things.

    I can give it points for consistency, since there's obviously a rule (even justifiable: there's not really whitespace outside the items to act on), but it's confusing to put a hover effect on an item that's not necessarily going to respond to a click at that location.  Did other designs try and fail?

  14. @Skyborne says:

    I too hate it when the visual representation tricks me into right clicking somewhere that is internally outside the item's rectangle. That rectangle area is inconsistent and is dependent on the item's selection state.

    Did MS fix it in Windows 8 or even consider it a bug? I seem to recall Raymond giving this "oh people need white space to have right click act on folder" counter argument, but I'm just not convinced that right clicking the containing folder is a more common action than right clicking an hovered item.

  15. @Skyborne says:

    Oh, and for the "need space to drag select multiple items" argument, aren't there spaces to the left of the first column in details view?

  16. Brian_EE says:

    @Skyborne: I agree. You don't need whitespace to have right-click on a folder. You just use common sense and go up one level in the directory hierarchy, and right-click on the actual folder. Or use folder view in the left pane and right-click there.

  17. Muzer says:

    Oh, the one thing I REALLY hate, is that, though you can get a "command prompt here" option for a folder by shift-right-clicking it (or is it ctrl, I can't actually remember), you can't do it by shift-right-clicking (or ctrl) in the actual folder itself; you do have to go up one level first. Combined with the fact that there's no "command prompt as admin here" option, it makes this feature useless in I'd say the majority of cases.

  18. xpclient says:

    It should be a verb but automatically done *once* when user navigates to any location, no longer after scrolling or manually changing the width or in other cases. ListView's LVS_EX_AUTOSIZECOLUMNS extended style can't even be forced for the abominable ItemsView.

    And whether sorting is a state or verb should be a user option. Jumping items in folders is a no-no!

    [Even doing it once after navigation results in jumping. You go to a folder. Ten seconds later, all the columns jump. And making it an option means you're not doing your job as a designer. -Raymond]
  19. GSerg says:

    > reduced user confidence since it's hard to have the confidence to click the mouse if there is an underlying threat that the thing you're trying to click will move around of its own volition.

    Exactly that is happening anyway.

    In Explorer I'm using the "List" view. So there are several columns. If you click an item in the last diplayed column, the column will jump to the left (in other words, the view will scroll one column to the right), making itself second-to-last-displayed. I always get bitten by this when I want to double-click an item in the last displayed column. I double-click it, but between the two clicks, the column jumps to the left, and my double-click fails. Moreover, if the column that ended up being the last-displayed column after the first click is not actually the last column, then my second click lands on an item from that now-last-displayed column, and that makes it jump to the left, just as the previous column did. In this case I end up with a selected item which is *two* columns away from the item I wanted to double-click initially.

    Convoluted as it might sound, it actually happens to me a lot, and is one of the most annoying gotchas in Windows interface for me.

  20. J says:

    @Muzer: I have the option to open command window here when clicking inside the folder. Are you using Windows 7?

  21. Quppa says:

    @Muzer: 'Open command window here' doesn't work when browsing within a Library, but it should otherwise.

  22. Drak says:

    @People with trouble left/richt clicking:

    Select the item with a left click first. You will find that the next left or richt click you do on the item, no matter where on the selection rectangle will act on the item.

    The suggestion highlight is for the initial left click only.

  23. [Ctrl+Numpad+. -Raymond]

    Is there any article that mentions this shortcut? I can't find any that mentions this.

  24. John Ludlow says:

    I find it interesting that even a decision that was made by actually implementing it and then performing

    actual usability research gets dismissed as something that was "an enormous oversight and usability problem."

    That's probably because those people find themselves doing that action repeatedly, are annoyed by that and think that the entire world are in the same situation as them, forgetting that different people use their computers in different ways.

    Of course, MS aren't immune to that mistake either. Hence the Windows 8 start screen, which forces desktop users to use awkward mouse gestures "because when you're on a tablet…"

  25. Random832 says:

    "Ten seconds later, all the columns jump."

    It takes ten seconds to enumerate a directory? Also, didn't Explorer used to have a loading animation with a flashlight or something while it's busy doing that, rather than actually displaying the directory listing in a partial state?

    [It can take ten seconds to extract the authors from every document in a large directory. Explorer showed the flashlight only for the initial enumeration, not for background column extraction. Remember, we're talking about secondary columns here. Or are you suggesting that the flashlight stay up while Explorer goes and fills in all the columns (so it can figure out what size they need to be)? That could take several minutes, especially on a slow network. -Raymond]
  26. It's kind of a self-defeating idea anyway– in any folder with a significant number of files there's usually one super-long filename that makes the auto-sized column incredibly wide and pushes all the details out of the viewable area, so "being able to see all the information about all the files" by auto-sizing the columns means you can't see most of the information about most of the files.

  27. Skyborne says:

    There's a "Cmd Here" in Shift+RtClick?  Awesome.  You learn something new every day.

    (In theory I know that Shift+RtClick adds s3kr1t advanced options to the context menus–something I *also* learned on this blog–but I never remember to try it when actually sitting in front of the interface.)

    @Drak: when something is highlighted in GTK/QT, when you click, you affect the item.  When a link is highlighted in a web browser, you affect the link even if you click the spaces between words.  Same with buttons–clicking inside padding activates the item.  The only time that "an item hint is not an item" is the Vista/7 explorer, which makes it both weird and constantly failing to do what I intend, which is what makes me so curious about the rationale.  (I'm going to assume there *is* one.)

  28. James says:

    (BTW, I moved the "Open command window here" option to the main context menu, so "Open elevated command window here" only shows up in the 'secret' Shift-ed context menu.)

  29. .dan.g. says:

    > reduced user confidence since it's hard to have the confidence to click the mouse if there is an underlying threat that the thing you're trying to click will move around of its own volition.

    Exactly the problem I find with Task Manager if I have sorted by CPU usage, which I accept is my choice. The items hop about making clicking them very hard.

  30. James says:

    Muzer says:

    " Oh, the one thing I REALLY hate, is that, though you can get a "command prompt here" option for a folder by shift-right-clicking it (or is it ctrl, I can't actually remember), you can't do it by shift-right-clicking (or ctrl) in the actual folder itself; you do have to go up one level first. Combined with the fact that there's no "command prompt as admin here" option, it makes this feature useless in I'd say the majority of cases. "

    As mentioned above by multiple users, not only is what you describe *not* default behavior ("Open command window here" *does* show up without having to go up to the parent folder) which makes me think your system's messed up, it is also easy to add an entry for "Open elevated command window here", if you know how: http://i.imgur.com/PobUw.png

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content