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Is there any reason with respect to Interface Design or Usability that someone (I guess Microsoft in the early days of windows?) started using this 3 buttons twenty years ago? Has anybody any sources on that? I guess, at some point in time, this Yes/No/Cancel approach for creating message boxes was so often used that everybody used it for consistency reasons in his application but what was before this point? Why exactly this three choices?

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We don't live in that world anymore

Some history:

  • The Yes/No and OK/Cancel buttons were created in the very early days of graphical user interfaces (they actually predated that on text screens, but for UX purposes let's start with windows).
  • The constraints at the time were very different from today:
    • Screen sizes and resolutions were a lot smaller, so dialog boxes and forms required very economical labels and buttons.
    • UI elements were often hardcoded into windows widgets. e.g. OK/Cancel and Yes/No were pre-wired configurations in early versions of Windows and Mac OS.
  • Users were "newer" to computers so having consistent buttons was important for building familarity.
  • As a result, Yes/No and OK/Cancel became ubiquitous in interfaces.

Today things are different

  • It's easy to style buttons, and designers have a lot of flexibility.
  • Screen sizes are much larger with much higher resolution.
  • Users are very familiar with graphical interfaces.

As a result, it's often not the best solution to use Yes/No or OK/Cancel.

The modern approach to button labeling is to describe the action briefly if possible.

  • 1
    One of those questions where history matters! – Okavango Mar 18 '15 at 22:13
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It depends on the page or form where it's being used. Typically, "Yes" or "No" might be the simpliest and most straight forward approach. "Yes" being a positive action, "No" being the negative, and "Cancel" allows the user to back out without taking action on the form. Wordy complicated buttons might not get read by the user. Also, "Yes" and "No" usually translates well in other languages.

Other common options, depending on the page or form type: Submit & Cancel Ok & Cancel

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It's simple: don't make me think. Those three buttons have been around forever, users know what the intended result should be. Providing the "cancel" button allows the user to opt-out of making a decision where necessary.

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In reference to confirmation dialogs, 'Yes' and 'No' are answers while 'Cancel' is a way out of the process without answering.

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