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Why is it an industry-standard to have a windows automatically grab focus?

From a usability point of view, why is it considered "good practice" for a desktop application to grab (more like hijack) the window focus when opening or whenever the program decides to do so? i.e. why is it even an option to let a window "violently" grab the focus like that? I am asuming it's considered good practice because it seems prevalent on all Windows versions since I can remember. Can't comment on Linux or Mac, but maybe someone else can.

I understand that if I open a program that requires input (a password field or something) I would maybe like that element to be the one that gets focus so that I can start typing the required info ASAP.

However this only works (in my opinion) if I only open one window at a time. The problem arises when I open several programs in succesion and one or more of those request auto-focus.

For example (and this happens to me quite frequently), I open Outlook and Pidgin and SublimeText in succesion. When Oulook gets focused, I start typing my password to login, but in the middle of typing SublimeText gets auto-focused and then half my password is sitting in plain view for anyone to see.

Why is this deemed a good practice? Considering that most people has to look at the keyboard when typing, that means you don't realize the focus has changed to somethig that might expose your password, potentially while someone is standing right next to you.

And even if no passwords or other sensitive information is involved, it's very annoying to be, for example, typing a long document and after several seconds of typing you turn up your head to the screen and find out half of what you typed is not there because some window just hijacked the focus.

So my question is, what are the usability considerations for doing auto-focus, regardless of what the user wants, i.e. if I have a focused window it's because I chose to be that way, why would a computer have the ability to decide otherwise? What would be a better alternative? for example, if programs wouldn't just take the focus and just flash in the task bar (like they already do), is that not sufficient notice to the user? And finally, is there ANY way to disable this annoying behavior in Windows? I'm not sure about details on Linux or Mac, so I can't comment on that.

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as for your 'and finally ...' you won't get that answered here, try, or Google – Toni Leigh Feb 6 '14 at 19:05
@ColinSharpe You are correct. I think I was just caught in the flow of my rant :P. I actually have searched for a solution to no avail though. – Acapulco Feb 6 '14 at 19:09
It is hardly an industry standard. It is good UX when the window opens as a result of explicit user action, would be kinda weird if it didn't in this case. It is very bad UX for non-explicit opening windows. This is in fact now actively discouraged by Windows. Both in its guidelines as well as in its making "put me in front" much harder to achieve. Unfortunately old habits die hard and code using the old API's is still out there. – Marjan Venema Feb 7 '14 at 11:53
I'm not sure it's good ux even when the user has triggered the action by opening the application, only when the user specifically triggers a 'view this application' operation – Toni Leigh Feb 10 '14 at 20:31
Just speculating (so not an answer), but I think application models have been slow-ish to catch up with the notion that typically when you launch an application you have no intention of looking at it and therefore you want to have to take a separate action to see it. It would better if an app were given the focus and then starts all its slow stuff (during which it can lose the focus) rather than doing all its slow stuff and takes focus at the end of that. That would accommodate both users who want to see what they run and users who don't. – Steve Jessop Apr 4 '14 at 13:38
up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is not good UX and wouldn't be considered best practice by any user experience experts, except in extreme circumstances such as warning workers in a dangerous environment that something was seriously wrong. Not a typical desktop application !

The reason is simply that the software has been lazily implemented in this particular context. Or possibly because it has been designed like this in order to try and get users to click on an advertising link.

Some really big folk in tech tell us this is not a good idea:

And it's even considered a type of bug by Mozilla:

And an answer right here with plenty of votes mentioning focus stealing as a UX anti pattern:

What are your desktop UI pet peeves?

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One of the worst offenders of this I have ever seen is the PHPStorm application. When I launch the program, and while it is loading, I switch to another application while waiting. Then PHPStorm switches focus back to itself... I switch back to my other program... and PHPStorm steals the focus again! – Michael Butler Apr 19 '14 at 15:29
personally I find Open Office is a bad one, the number of times I've ended up with the second half of a URL, search term or piece of computer code in a Writer document lol, worse still, those characters then sometimes go on to clutter the shut down process with 'would you like to save' dialogs #first-world-problems – Toni Leigh Feb 17 '15 at 18:42

Because a lot of the time it's a good idea.

Way back when I had a Unix GUI set up not to do this and it was just as annoying as focus-on-open. The problem is this: most of the time when you open a program, it's because you want to interact with it. Not switching to the new application immediately means that your starting a program process requires a separate, annoying, step. So doing it the other way has disadvantages too.

Also, it's probably the case that usage patterns has shifted since the decision was made; it's a lot more common to have a whole load of programs running now than it was when this behaviour was decided upon. This increase in the number of programs opened at once means you're seeing the stealing behaviour a lot more often relative to the desirable one-click play option.

I doubt there is a way to always pick the correct option, although I think you could get close with a heuristic based on how recently you interacted with the current window.

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