25

It's common for the user to use the cross button to exit an application.

But sometimes software is tricky and the cross minimizes the window instead of closing it. Should this kind of behavior be considered bad UX?

In Skype v7 on Windows7/8 (Microsoft), the _ and the X buttons do exactly the same action and it's a real pain to quit this app.

With Hangouts (Google), when the user clicks on the cross a modal window asks "Do you want to quit Hangouts?" with two buttons: Quit and Minimize.

I have seen a lot of apps (mostly voice communication Software or torrent clients) where, when the user clicks on the cross, the UI/window is closed but the app is still running in the background (with an alert like "This app is still running in background").

It's often that software is made to run in the background without user interaction. But should the cross button be used to minimize a window? Even if an app is made to run in the background, should I give the cross button a meaning other than "close"?

  • 2
    In Flight Simulator X, the "X" in the top left corner of the kneeboard is the FS X logo. Guess how often I clicked on it, until I found that I can close the kneeboard using the small round button on the right top of the window... – Alexander Mar 31 '15 at 8:47
18

X has never meant exit, but there's a reason for the confusion


X has historically been overloaded to mean two different things:

  1. Delete an item. For example:

    enter image description here

  2. Close or Dismiss a window. This is not the same as exiting an app but historically, hitting the X button almost always resulted in an application exiting, so that is why users sometime confuse the two:

    • Historically, single-threaded operating systems and modally-oriented applications didn't have active background processes like Skype does, so when an application window was dismissed (not minimized with -), the logical thing to do was to exit the application.
    • This is why the confusion has arisen over time (aka it's correlation not causation).
    • Here are a few examples illustrating that even historically, X never meant Exit:
      • Historical versions of Microsoft Windows sometimes had X icons on dialog boxes to dismiss them.
      • Both historically and today, X is used for in-frame documents (e.g. in Microsoft Word) to close a document window but not to Exit an application.
      • To address some unnaturally pedantic comments to this answer, here is a link to the Windows 95 interface guidelines which have many references to what the Windows Close Button is, how the term Close is defined in the Windows framework, and how the Close Button is used. In particular, the documentation refers specifically in many places to the close button being used to close windows (rather than exit the application). It also makes specific distinctions between Close and Exit behavior. For example, Page 108 references instances where the underlying application (the example they use is a printer) remains active after a window is closed...and includes specific guidelines to use the term Close instead of Exit.

Today, X means the same thing

When correctly used, the X meaning should still mean Close or Dismiss. For some applications, it makes sense for to exit the application when the window is closed/dismissed. For others (e.g. Skype, anti-virus firewall), it makes sense for the application to keep running in the background when the window is dismissed. So nowadays, Close does not always lead to an exit, but the X idiom is still the same.

  • 6
    [Citation Needed]. I find that Mac has long made this distinction (where X eliminated the window but the program was still running and the top toolbar still displayed its options – including the actual Quit option), but Windows has not, nor so far as I can tell, ever did. There have been exceptions for some time; Skype is not unique in that regard. But the existence of exceptions does not mean that the distinction you made was ever a part of the “meaning” of the button. Thus, I think this answer is in desperate need of some kind of source backing its primary claim. – KRyan Mar 30 '15 at 19:21
  • 13
    The X has always meant close/exit/delete the item on which it appears. When the X appears in the top-right of the main application window (rather than in all of your examples, of sub-windows or sub-documents), it means to close that – the program. Which is, yes, the same as exiting the application. That this is not or ever was not the case, that there was ever a distinction between closing the main application window and exiting the application, is the claim that you have made and have failed to back up. And I do not think you can, because I am fairly sure it isn’t true. – KRyan Mar 30 '15 at 19:45
  • 8
    Actually, you're wrong: Stack Exchange very much is about rejecting users' unbacked opinions as noise, and filtering that out and finding solid, usable and actionable information. Your answer provides absolutely no basis on which I can judge whether or not you are actually speaking accurately. You just make a series of claims, which run counter to my own experience, and you do not justify them in any way. It’s actually really depressing that this community considers that the mark of a good answer. – KRyan Mar 30 '15 at 20:35
  • 3
    Furthermore, insulting those who criticize you, assuming they have no idea what they are talking about, and linking to the very first page of Microsoft's massive documentation is almost comical, it's so inappropriate. You have no idea what my experience is or is not, thank you. Your link is beyond useless. Link me, actually, no, add a link to your answer, in which Microsoft states that the X is distinct from exiting an application. That would be exactly the sort of evidence this answer desperately needs. – KRyan Mar 30 '15 at 20:38
  • 4
    @KRyan: I think he's right. The existence of the X by default in the corner of all dialog boxes, "subwindows" in a view, separate windows of a multi window application, and snap in panels, all point to X as close this window rather than close the program. The fact that they're often the same might be a bad decision on Microsoft's part, but it does appear to be the design intent. msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/desktop/… says "Having a Close button helps users stay in control by allowing them to close windows they don't want." – Mooing Duck Mar 30 '15 at 21:58
15

A cross should always be used to close something. The problem is the meaning of closing.

One thing is for sure, closing is not the same as minimizing.

Your example for Skype in Windows is not correct. Close button closes the window, while the minimize window button minimizes the window, but doesn't close it. Therefore they don't do the same.

On Mac OS, closing means closing the window. But it's not always true. E.g. closing the System Preferences window closes it and also quits the app, because it's not a multi-doc app. Closing a Pages window only closes that window and doesn't quit the app, because it's a multi-doc app. This is logic, but logic like this is often what creates confusion.

In Windows, with regular programs, closing means completely closing the program with the 2 following exceptions:

  • a program like MS Word - Closing a window only closes the program if you're closing the last document. This is a recent behavior introduced with Office 2007 (if I'm not mistaken). Before this, this behavior used to be quite consistent, i.e. closing windows always closed the program, even with multiple docs open.
  • a program running in background - with an icon in system tray. Because it's a background program, often it's not designed to be easy to close, therefore when closing a window from that program, it won't close the background process. This is a long standing pattern, but it doesn't mean that users now find it consistent.

Inside the browser, i.e. with web pages or web app, despite the examples mentioned in the question, things tend to be much more consistent. Close button usually closes the parent element (usually modals).

So the answer to the question depends on the context, as described above.

  • 9
    Skype v7 + (at least on Win7 and Win8) never close their window. Clicking on [x] will just minimize it, leaving a task-bar entry for the window. IIRC, it is/was different on Windows XP. – Martin Mar 30 '15 at 13:43
  • 2
    Windows are not minimized to system tray. Minimizing means the window is hidden, but available in taskbar. When you re-open you recover the previous state. That doesn't happen when the window is closed, that's why the Skype window is closed - when re-opened, it will not usually recover the previous state. – chocobanana Mar 30 '15 at 14:24
  • 3
    It's a setting in Skype to make the X button actually close Skype. By default on modern versions the X does the same thing as minimize – Zach Saucier Mar 30 '15 at 15:08
  • 1
    Then that makes things even more inconsistent... – chocobanana Mar 30 '15 at 16:02
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    Yes, as it turns out, Skype is a truly obnoxious program in many respects (the Android app is even worse). – KRyan Mar 30 '15 at 19:18
12

It means Close. Skype’s is a poor design.

Use the correct button for your use-case. If your program cannot be closed, or at least non-trivially, don’t display an X at all, or disable the button. Replace it with _, which is the icon used for minimizing.

Hindering attempts to close your software makes you look awful

This behavior is one strongly associated with malware: attempting to subvert or ignore user attempts to get rid of it is one of the foundations of truly obnoxious or even dangerous software. Many users are trained to see such behavior as a big, bold red flag, indicating that the software is up to something nefarious.

That doesn’t strictly mean you shouldn’t do it. There are use-cases for it. You had just be very sure that your product fits, and that users will respond to the behavior with “well, that makes sense, it needs to be running all the time,” and not “ok, what are you doing that you’re worried about me seeing?”

Skype fails at this, badly, in my opinion. Skype’s design assumes (as discussed by Andrew Neely) that users want Skype to run in the background at all times – but if we’re being honest, more than likely few people use it that way, and (I suspect) no one at Skype actually thinks that assumption is valid.

Instead, it seems more that the decision is an attempt to subvert user expectations and intention in order to try to integrate Skype into their routine. It is very telling that Skype defaults to minimizing to the taskbar (free advertising!), and doesn’t even have a setting for quitting when you hit X.

In other words, Skype does not minimize-when-it-should-close because they think that’s what users want, it does that because that’s what they want users to want, and they’re trying to force it. This is atrocious design that, at least in my opinion, is deceptive and abusive, and diminishes Skype in my estimation.

And I would feel the same way, quite negative really, about your product if you did the same, unless I actually agreed that I didn’t want it to ever close. There are very few applications that I think justify that.

  • 4
    I don't think this is correct. Here is a screenshot of the Microsoft's own Windows 8.1 Defender software. The X button appears on the top right, and it dismisses the window but the software keeps running in the background. This is not because Microsoft is breaking its own idioms: on the contrary, it's consistent with Microsoft's window specifications for the X close button which can be found here. Closing is not the same as exiting. – tohster Mar 30 '15 at 23:32
  • 4
    @tohster Unlike Skype, Defender has a purpose that justifies an exception. The document that you link is specifically about Window Management; it discusses the X in that context, and only in that context. They are talking more about sub-windows within an application, i.e. the windows that an application must manage, than they are about the main window, so far as I can tell. – KRyan Mar 31 '15 at 0:52
  • this is why I encouraged you to read the Windows documentation and see for yourself. The close button definition applies to application window frames, modals, and dialogs (it's bad practice to have different definitions for idioms related to the different windows). I cannot give you a tutorial on the Windows UI framework, but there are thousands of Windows applications out there so the close button behavior isn't some new thing...the idiom has been used for almost 2 decades and, if you insist on being pedantic, why don't you show us why it's DIFFERENT from what the documents say. – tohster Mar 31 '15 at 1:04
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    @tohster Agreed, this answer is also lacking in much the same way yours is. I am in the process of trying to dig up backing material, but felt that a counter-point to your own argument was necessary, and since the community doesn’t seem to feel that it’s necessary to justify or back up answers, that’s apparently been acceptable. In reality, both answers are close to worthless because all any reader has to go on is our words for it. – KRyan Mar 31 '15 at 14:11
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    you keep making unsupported statements like, Windows Defender is an exception to a standard. I'm sorry but this is misleading and just wrong in the face of the adduced documentation for the Windows and the MS definition of the Close button throughout this page. Remember that Skype is owned by Microsoft, and was one of the first apps to comply with the Windows Metro UI spec. MS has put a lot of effort into building a compliant UI for Skype as a showcase app for Windows 8. Accusing MS of using its own spec incorrectly is far-fetched and flies against both reason and documentation. – tohster Apr 1 '15 at 8:00
5

When it comes to me, I feel really frustrated when the x button doesn't close the app. Has happened a number of times with Skype.

Although, when I retrospect, I don't feel quite disturbed when, instead of a "x" button, the app has an "arrow pointing bottom right" to indicate it's still going to run in the background or will be minimized to the system tray.

I feel this is a clear affordance to let the user know upfront that the app can't be closed. May be he has to exit via a menu option, but certainly wouldn't be disappointed to see the app still running.

The "Arrow pointing bottom right" (dunno if it has a name. Please let me know) reduces this unnecessary frustration, I feel. Didn't come across any usability studies or article on this. This is just from my own experience.

4

The X symbol can be used when canceling or removing something. In terms of an application's or modal window, the X should be used to close the program or modal by convention.

Xs can also be used to remove items from a list, delete something in some circumstances (comments come to mind), or otherwise cancel something.

As such, minimizing or another action that is not canceling something is an inappropriate usage of the symbol.

3

I will present an alternative view to tohster's definition of what X should do, based on what how I think your average user will interpret it. Your average user's mental model of how a computer works will probably not contain a sharp distinction between close/exit/quit, instead they are likely to have one "favourite" term that they use for all of these. I know that in the early days of GUIs, there was research into exactly this when developers/designers were what to call the appropriate menu option. I also suggest your average user's mental model will not make a clear distinction between application and window. Of course these distinctions are vital to the programmer, but not to the user.

I suggest that the common meaning of an X icon - principally in the windows world, but increasingly also on the web - is "get rid of the thing containing the X". That's a deliberately non-technical description since your average user won't think in technical terms in the first place. What "get rid of" means depends on context of course.

That, for me, is why new uses of X work and are generally "intuitive" - tag lists as in tohster's example; the X that appears when you hover on a preview image in your own facebook post, the X on a tab in a browser. Or imagine you're reading an article on a news site when half way through, a semitransparent overlay appears with a box in the middle inviting you to enter your e-mail address to "sign up for further articles that may interest you". What do you do? You look for something X-like to get rid of the **** thing and continue reading. Or you decide you've had enough and X the whole tab, then get back to whatever you were supposed to be doing before you started reading that article.

There is actually another kind of X - the one that means "error". Back in win95 days, dialog boxes when something had gone badly wrong - "this program has performed an illegal operation and will be terminated" - had an icon of a white X in a red circle. More than once I had to explain to a colleague that no, you don't click that icon to make the thing go away!

In some contexts, "get rid of" translates to delete, like in tohster's tag list example or a preview image in a facebook post. For the X in a title bar, if you're in a simple one-window application then the usual behaviour is to terminate the application, which our average user may well call "close the window". Windows "single document" applications like mspaint, notepad etc. work like this. For explorer of course, closing a window doesn't necessarily translate to closing a process (unless you have ticked "start each window in a separate process"). Back in the days when winword.exe had "multiple-document" interface, that is one big window for the application in which you could tile or otherwise arrange multiple "document windows", each window had its own X - the outer one closed the application and all documents, the ones on an inner window closed a single document window. And of course, if there were unsaved changes then a confirmation box appeared first.

But back to the original question - what should happen if someone clicks an X in a program's window? Definitely: that window should disappear. Should the associated program close? It depends.

  • For your usual applications (word etc.), closing the window closes the program (sometimes with a confirmation dialog box if you have unsaved changes). Indeed, this is probably the only way many people know to close a program.

  • For a web browser, behaviour varies. Should you close the application if there's multiple tabs open? Firefox asks the user. If there are downloads going on in the background? Both firefox and chrome ask, as far as I know, but you can set this in the preferences.

  • Terminating a windows explorer window does not of course end windows, or the main explorer process (which is responsible for the start button and taskbar).

  • Closing an antivirus program's window should not of course terminate the background scanner!

  • Process Explorer (an advanced task manager) is interesting. By default, X closes the process. But you can set in the menu whether you'd prefer X to act as minimize, and even whether you'd like a minimised process explorer to appear in the task bar or only in the icons area.

So having the X not terminate the program is not generally bad UX - it depends on the context, I'd argue.

Which brings us, finally, to skype. I personally find its behaviour annoying - I always close it by right-clicking the taskbar icon then selecting "Quit Skype". And note that even in this menu, "close window" has an X icon whereas Quit does not.

But you can argue both ways. The designers' hypothesis seems to be something like "skype runs in the background whenever the computer is on - friends can call you whenever you're online". The question we really need to ask is whether or not that's what most skype users would prefer or not, and that question has very little to do with X buttons.

So:

Does this kind of behavior should be considered as bad UX?

The only way to find out is to ask lots of people what they expect/want to happen if you click the X, then a friend tries to call you: if most say "they can't call you because you closed the program", then it's bad UX because it doesn't match peoples' expectations. If most say "a window pops up announcing the call" then skype got it right. I have my opinion on what I'd like to happen but one data point alone doesn't mean anything.

2

The answer to your question is, it depends upon how the user uses the software. Like other user-interface questions, it depends on the use case.

Many of those applications where the close function only minimizes the application do so upon the assumption that the value of the software only comes if it is running all the time. Looking at Skype or Hangouts as a telephone, for example, it's easy to understand why the developer would want the software to be able to ring when someone calls. If the user is wanting to use these products as telephones, then they obviously only meant to close the user interface.

I, for example, only use Skype for specific pre-arranged instances (I or my wife are out of town, and video chat with the family as a means of staying connected while away.) In my use case, I don't need nor want the service running all the time, and closing the user interface should close the application.

If you are designing such a product, I would make two icons to accommodate both use cases. One to close the UI, and one to close the service.

0

People often find it annoying that when they click the cross, it's minimized but not quit. If it's moved to the tray, however, they don't find it annoying.

Most people don't care whether an application still runs in the background, as long as their taskbar isn't cluttered with applications.

  • 3
    Can you justify your answer? This way it is not very substantive. – jazZRo Mar 30 '15 at 12:26
  • Totally agree with you, but also agree with @jazZRo that, even after reading your answer, I have no idea if “most people” actually feel the same as you and I. You haven’t backed up that statement, which a proper answer needs to do. – KRyan Mar 30 '15 at 19:24
  • The answer is subjective but it is true that "most people" who have commented on this answer, including me, agree with it. Therefore, based on a small and self selected sample, the answer is correct. – Alchymist Apr 1 '15 at 13:41

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