Have It Your Way

…As Burger King allegedly say.  Pondering customizability.

The inscrutable Raymond Chen has an blog called The Old New Thing, in which he (as a Microsoft person) posts on many detailed and interesting topics related to the internals of Windows.  Even if you’re a Unixite so fervent that your car has a command line, it’s worth reading to see why certain things in Windows are they way that they are.  He has a recent entry on Why can’t the default drag/drop behavior be changed? (in Explorer) which highlights something I was thinking about recently; the twin and somewhat opposed worldviews regarding interfaces.

When, in the past, I’ve run Linux desktops[0], I’ve spent happy hours playing with the myriad subtle and singular configuration options that let me set it up just how I like it, with all my favourite key and mouse combinations spread across all the applications that I need to use.  Windows, naturalmente, doesn’t let me do that.  It works how it works.  The rationale for this, according to Raymond is:

[customization] removes some of the predictability from the user interface. One of the benefits of a common user interface is that once you learn it, you can apply the rules generally. But if each user could customize how drag/drop works, then the knowledge you developed with drag/drop wouldn’t transfer to other people’s machines.


Infinite customizability also means that you can’t just sit down in front of somebody’s machine and start using it. You first have to learn how they customized their menus, button clicks, default drag effects, and keyboard macros.

I’m not sure where I’d stand on this point.  I like things the way I like them, but I also hate sitting down at an unfamiliar system and not having things ready-to-hand.  Perhaps it’s a question of ownership of the machine in question…

[0] No axe to grind here, it’s just that all my Linux systems are servers these days.

3 thoughts on “Have It Your Way

  1. I think the foreign machine argument is a crock. What percentage of our time is spent at someone else’s machine, versus our own?

    The time saved by making your own machine more productive is most likely MUCH greater than the time lost by being confused at someone else’s machine.

    Unless of course you’re in IT, where you are at other people’s machines all day.

    Maybe that’s the real reason? *Dons tinfoil hat*. MS knows how often Windows machines screw up, so they’re trying to make it easier on the IT personnel that will have to come fix them?

  2. Microsoft consistent?

    I would find that argument easier to swallow if microsoft were consistent with their user interfaces. At the bottom right of my XP screen I have the taskbar, with small icons that I have to double click to open the associated application. At the bottom right is the shortcut bar, with identical looking icons that only need a single click to open. Even after using XP for a couple of years I still get it wrong on occasion and launch two copies of my browser or other program.

    Another example: what key you press to start a search? Depending on which MS program you are using, it could be ctrl-F, ctrl-E, F3, alt-F3, shift-F3 or even F4. To repeat the search it could be any of those, plus ctrl-G.

    • Re: Microsoft consistent?

      Good point, that. In fact, if I remember correctly, Explorer either has or used to have an option to open files with a single-click; put there when, during the everything-is-the-web frenzy, Microsoft decided that Explorer and Internet Explorer should work the same way. Now *that’s* a major change in behaviour that could really confuse the hell out of people. 🙂

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