Working on both Windows and OSX, I have some habits on both.

In alert dialogs, there is a huge usability variance between both operating systems. In the latter, you can either tap enter and have the focused choice accepted (where focused choice is in general the "logical answer"), or you need to use your mouse to choose another answer. For example (sorry, picture in french), when shutting my computer down, my mac asks me whether I really want to shut it down. The focused choice is shut down, but in case I was wrong, I can still cancel. enter image description here

In order to click on cancel, my only solution (at least that I know of) is to click with my cursor.

On Windows, you can use the tab and shift-tab keys in order to navigate through the answers you can give.

Although I am more of a mac-user, I really think that the windows approach is much better on that one.

So, my question is/are;

a) Is there a patent story behind all this, or is it a deliberate choice from apple not to add this feature.

b) Do you think there could be a drawback to having the ability to navigate through alert dialog buttons, or would you always recommend (e.g. in web apps) to give the ability to the user to navigate through the buttons with the keyboard?

  • 1
    I am a mac user (recent) and this is one of the few things that annoys me still. If I want to use the keyboard, then let me use it!
    – JohnGB
    Nov 26, 2012 at 15:10
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    Been a long time since I used OS X, but can't you use the keyboard either with the first letter of the option or option-key + first letter to select options in dialogs? I'm not sure if there's a way to discover this (e.g. holding down option key to see which letters do what)
    – PeterL
    Nov 26, 2012 at 17:13
  • I'm not a frequent mac user but I seem to recall a preference somewhere to enable "full" keyboard access that would fix this. I'm not sure exactly where, or what the default is.
    – Matt Obee
    Nov 26, 2012 at 17:28
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    Yes, in the "Keyboard" settings of the "System Preferences", you can turn "Full Keyboard Access" mode to IN. It is OFF by default, what allows you to move the focus with TAB to text boxes and lists only. This has been in Mac OS for a many many years now. The question is then, why it is off by default? maybe because too few users need it? or too many applications use custom controls and do not handle it well/completely? However, note that pressing the ENTER key will still trigger the default button, even if it is not focused! (use SPACE instead)
    – Padrig
    Nov 26, 2012 at 18:48
  • @Padrig thx for info ! Strange that pressing ENTER still triggers the default button, even if not focused. Anyway, very useful !!
    – leMoisela
    Nov 27, 2012 at 7:28

1 Answer 1


You can activate Cancel by pressing ESC. All of the Mac OS X dialogs, which has a properly associated Cancel action could be closed with ESC key (with some exceptions).

So, you have ENTER for focused (default) action, ESCAPE for cancel and SPACE for alternative action (if any), which is enough in most of the cases. The only problem I see here is discoverability, but once you will discover that it will work in any app and dialog.

So, actually, it's even more user-friendly (you'll have to press just one key to choose an option).

Rationale I see behind this, is that it's better to think about the dialog, figure out how user will use it and why he or she even needs it. I can imagine a 5 buttons dialog on Windows just because it's possible to navigate between options with keyboard, but think it's almost impossible to get such dialog in OS X, even if you got it it seems like it will be too complicated to choose an option quickly, so you probably have to use mouse.

Concerning an ability to use keyboard, I think, it's a plus, especially, for situations caused by other keyboard actions: you will be able to not change the input device, which could be annoying.

  • Woow ! first thanks for for the tips, that will save me hours :) ! At first, I wouldn't say it is more user-friendly as the discoverability is low (not obvious at all, in particular the space bar), but your argument about the number of buttons make it clear why. This also make sense on NOT having any dialog in a website that has more than 2 to 3 buttons. Always try to keep it simple for the user !
    – leMoisela
    Nov 27, 2012 at 7:16
  • I come back to you, cos the SPACE solution does not work (ex in photoshop when closing a picture, a dialog asks whether you want to save (enter), cancel (esc) or Don't save (NOT space). BUT ! As PeterL hinted, option+first letter works ;) !!
    – leMoisela
    Dec 1, 2012 at 21:07
  • @leMoisela you may actually process keyboard events any way you want programmatically by intercepting them, so it looks like a custom event handling and not a standard behaviour Dec 2, 2012 at 7:19
  • Same behaviour in Windows. ESC key for Cancel.
    – Bill Dagg
    Dec 13, 2012 at 22:36

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