May 21 2009

Usability: Reply/Reply All buttons should be apart!

Recently, I had to apologise because I had inadvertantly sent an email reply to more people than I had intended to. I had inadvertantly hit “Reply to All” instead of “Reply” - a mistake that many, many people have made from time to time. No doubt it has sometimes caused an awful lot of grief, too!

In response to my apology, my correspondant said “these things happen when that pesky Reply to All button is next to the Reply button.”

DOH! Of course! It’s a usability issue!

Standard Micosoft Oulook toolbar has Reply and Reply to All adjacent.

Well! There’s actually something I can do about that!

The Microsoft way of doing things is to allow the user to configure all sorts of things that in actual fact usually really shouldn’t usually be user configurable, in my humble opinion. The poisition of the buttons in a toolbar is one of them. Here’s how to do it:

  1. At the far right of any given toolbar, thee is a small, downward pointing arrow, which is the key to a little toolbar menu.
    toolbar configuration menu
    Select Add or Remove Buttons, and then select Customize.
  2. The Customise dialog will appear. Now you have two choices. You can use the Rearrange commands button:

    BUT, I personally find it much, much easier to just drag the buttons where I want them:

There now! With the Reply to All button moved away from the Reply button, I won’t be accidentally hitting the wrong one again in a hurry!


That’s it. If you just wanted to see how to do it, and didn’t want further opinions, you can stop reading now.

Still here? Good.

Now, there are those who might see this as a triumph of Microsoft usability. After all, I had a problem, and thanks to the flexibility they built in, I was able to fix it. Yay Microsoft! right?

Well, not quite. See, the trouble with customisable interfaces is that they occasionally get customised.

See, now that I have made this alteration, if any of the rest of the 99.99% of highly habitualised Microsoft Outlook users who not only haven’t modified their toolbar, but don’t even know it can be done, attempt to use the one I have now changed, they will have a much harder time finding Reply to All.

Also, if I was to actually get really, really used to it, and perhaps even began to rely on it, I would also have a moment of confusion when I went to use an uncustomised version - which will inevitably happen, if only when something gets reinstalled sometime and the setting is lost. So although I have indeed been able to try a solution, it is not likely that I’ll make using it this modified way a truly instinctive habit. Doing that would just be inviting problems for myself further down the track.

A better approach from a usability purist’s standpoint would have been just to get it right in the first place :-)

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