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I've noticed this in a lot of applications under Mac OS X Lion lately. For example:


Pressing return is equivalent to pressing the button with the blue background, not the highlight.

What's the reasoning behind this? To me, this seems like hard-to-use design—but is there a better reason for it?

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AFAIK this is not a new thing - I'm pretty sure I saw it in Tiger, Leopard and Snow Leopard as well. – Jan Aug 14 '11 at 18:22
I don't think so—before, the "default" button would also have the glowing highlight, unless I'm misremembering. – Aaron Yodaiken Aug 14 '11 at 19:23
Mac: think different. Some guy in Cupertino: think badly. ; ) – Jimmy Breck-McKye Aug 14 '11 at 22:14
For me this looks like a bug: such a dialog should IMHO set the initial focus to the default button. – Mike L. Aug 24 '11 at 13:25
up vote 8 down vote accepted

This has been in OSX for ages, as luxun said, it used to be visible when you enabled keyboard navigation for all controls.

Basically, the Return key performs the least destructive/safest action, spacebar the most destructive.

Eg: In case of a file save dialog, perhaps triggered by closing an application with unsaved changes, return will save, space will either cancel the dialog or don't save the file, Esc will one of the remaining options.

Eg2: pressing the power button, in Lion it's a bit different as the spacebar toggles the reopen windows, but usually, the spacebar restarts the computer and return turns it off, escape will dismiss the dialog cancelling everything.

Not sure if it's a matter of safe/unsafe, guess it's the most obvious option, in the example of turning off your computer, the return key is more likely to be pressed and therefore will complete the primary action of the power button: toggle the computer on status.

It's actually very handy once you get used to it and expect all the dialogs to work that way.

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Yeah, because pressing enter (close) on a do you want to save you last 30 minutes work dialog is least destructive! – Ionut Staicu Aug 15 '11 at 5:13
@Ionut: Default is "Save" when you close a document. – Phil Aug 16 '11 at 6:51

Enter triggers the blue button, spacebar the one with the blue outline. I don't think this is bad usability because it doesn't change the standard behavior and allows advanced users to be faster.

This used to be a setting under "Keyboard", in Lion there doesn't seem to be a way to turn it off though.

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