Microsoft breaks own design rules in dupe-the-user Windows 10 upgrade tactic

'Never give [the Close button] the same effect as OK,' Microsoft tells third-party developers; but it did just that

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DobaKung (CC BY 2.0)

Microsoft's interpretation of the "Close" button in a notification of an impending upgrade to Windows 10 is contrary to company design guidelines and other recommendations, according to documents on the firm's website.

As part of a final push to boost the number of PCs running Windows 10 before the July 29 expiration of its free upgrade offer, Microsoft has altered the behavior of a notification dialog so that clicking the "X" in the upper-right corner authorizes the pre-scheduled upgrade.

Not only is that contrary to decades of convention and user expectations, but it's a change from past behavior of the dialog. Previously, when users saw dialog frames posed by the Get Windows 10 (GWX) app -- which was responsible for producing the notification -- they could both exit the dialog and cancel the proposed action by clicking on the X to close the window.

Microsoft first downloaded and installed GWX on millions of Windows 7 and 8.1 machines last year, initially as a way for customers to "reserve" the free upgrade to 10, and has repeatedly tweaked and re-installed it on PCs since. As the months ticked by, Microsoft got progressively more aggressive with GWX and its Windows 10 upgrade strategy, including automatically downloading the necessary bits to most eligible PCs, later extending that to silently scheduling the upgrade process.

However, this spring -- by March 23 at the latest, but perhaps earlier -- Microsoft decided to redefine an X-click as approving the upgrade. "If you click on OK or on the red 'X,' you're all set for the upgrade and there is nothing further to do [emphasis added]," stated a Microsoft support document on the auto-scheduling of the Windows 10 upgrade.

Although some argued that click-on-X was to be treated as a "Close" button, not an "Exit" button -- the former makes the dialog vanish, while the latter cancels the under-consideration process -- and implied that Microsoft did not violate its own design guidelines, that's not correct.

At least not by Microsoft's own documentation.

"The Close button on the title bar should have the same effect as the Cancel or Close button within the dialog box," stated the firm's guidelines on crafting dialog boxes. "Never give it the same effect as OK [emphasis added]."

Those guidelines were written for Windows 7, remain on Microsoft's developer-aimed site and, as far as Computerworld has been able to determine, have not been superseded by different advice for later editions of the OS.

Elsewhere in the same document, Microsoft told third-party developers, "Use Cancel or Close for negative commit buttons instead of specific responses to the main instruction [emphasis added]."

That's exactly how users treated the X in the upgrade scheduling dialog box, as a "negative commit," or in plain English, as a "No thanks." Microsoft, on the other hand, interpreted it as the exact opposite.

Other examples from the same set of guidelines show that Microsoft broke its own rules. "Make sure the Close button on the title bar has the same effect as Cancel or Close," the document said.

User experience (UX) designers and developers debated the pros and cons of the Close button in an interesting discussion thread from 2014 on Stack Exchange, the Q&A community. Several pointed out the perceptions users have of the action tool, which were at odds with Microsoft's more recent switch in GWX.

"A close button is a very known and comfortable escape hatch," Matt Lavoie, a senior UX designer at policy-management vendor PowerDMS, contended on Stack Exchange in October 2014. "Depending on the scenario, either 'Yes' or 'No' could be the destructive action. If a user got to this place, and is now in panic mode because they really don't want to do the negative action, they might want to get out of there as quickly as possible. 'Close' is just going to get me out of here, no questions asked. I don't have to think about it."

Microsoft has also told users to use the Close button to bail out of questionable situations. As Brad Chacos, senior editor of PCworld recently noted -- like Computerworld, PCworld is owned by IDG -- Microsoft has offered this advice: "Never click 'Agree' or 'OK' to close a window that you suspect might be spyware. Instead, click the red 'x' in the corner of the window or press Alt + F4 on your keyboard to close a window."

Users intending to avoid the Windows 10 upgrade did what Microsoft suggested. But because there were no explanations about the close button's changed behavior in the notification -- only in the overlooked support document -- it's highly likely that the vast majority of those who clicked on the X to make the pop-up disappear had no idea that they were, in fact, authorizing an upgrade.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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