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In most windows desktops the minimize, maximize and restore buttons for a window are placed in the windows decoration on the top right. However, MacOS and now Gnome in Ubuntu have placed those buttons on the left.

What is the important aspect when deciding where to place them? Is user expectation from previous experience the most important aspect, or are there other independent aspects that relate to where the user would first look automatically? Is there a difference for localizations where the letters are written from left to right, or from right to left?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

I think this is one of those things where you should do what the user expects.

What do they expect? Well that's sometimes the tricky thing to figure out. Eye movement studies have been done in excess to determine the best placement for the most important call-to-action buttons. And users often start in the upper-left hand corner. On the other hand, these window buttons are so ubiquitous and so familiar that they shouldn't require unnecessary thought. If a user is accustomed to an OS with the buttons on a certain side of the screen they will naturally be looking for them in that spot. Past experience is going to be the dominant factor in what the user expects.

So for example, if your audience is composed of 90% Windows users, I think you should absolutely put these buttons in the upper-right. Windows users will naturally look in the upper-right hand corner for these buttons because that's what they've been trained to do.

Or better yet, if you can adopt the built-in window controls (title and button placement) of the target OS, then it takes this decision out of your hands and the buttons will always be where the user expects.

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Definitely take your cues from the target OS. –  ChrisF Aug 9 '10 at 20:36
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It's unfortunate in a way that users do expect the UI to be consistent with the operating system. I wish I had a dollar for every time I meant to click 'Max' and clicked 'Close'. If I were building a window from scratch rather than taking the easy way out and letting Windows do the dirty work, I would at least put some space between those tiny little boxes. I might make them a bit larger also. But I would leave them in the corner where the user expected to find them (upper right for Windows.)

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Placing the buttons in the upper-left corner has the advantage that they'd be still visible when a user has a narrow viewport.

Would the buttons be placed in the upper-right corner, those users would have to scroll to the right at first, before they could close the popup/modal.

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This very question arose with my client today - and your answers have been useful but I should like to add that from a Western-users' perspective (carefully avoiding reading/writing directions), the root of the question is in why Windows placed their buttons on the right and OS X on the left.

The right-hand-side is a user preference for those who use their mouse in their right hand, which gives a natural "mouse off" the screen on the right. Left-handed users often still mouse-off to the right (from habit using the right-hand interface pattern under discussion), but will be physically more comfortable mousing off to the left.

There are more right-handed users than left.

Clever interfaces will offer a preference or alternative (such as Window's own "hidden" close button on the left of their window title bars).

Whether OS X was designed by a leftie, or whether the science of user interface design was in its infancy, I couldn't say, but I think Windows have got it right. Besides, I understand the OS X red button doesn't close the application, but hides the window so the question may not be entirely valid if comparing the two operating systems.

I've never been happy with OS X's 3 colored buttons either, although the user learns to recognize the buttons by position 1, 2, and 3, I believe adding an icon as Windows does just caters for more cognitive preferences than a circle and position alone. Squares / circles, left/ right, icons / no icons; it sure looks like someone only wanted to be different!

In summary, consider your users' mouse-off positions and where possible, give them some choice in the control of your interface.

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