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I Hate Dialog Boxes that Grab the Focus

Thursday 15 March, 2007, 04:44 PM

One of my least favourite features of Windows is the way dialog boxes can pop open and grab the keyboard focus when you're in the middle of typing into another application.

Just now, for example, I was two DVD-Rs into a backup of my machine, when a dialog popped open asking me to insert the third disk. Problem is, I was in the middle of typing a sentence into an instant messenger window - I didn't want to sit and do nothing while the lengthy backup process ran. (Who says men can't multitask? :) ) So when disk prompt dialog got the focus, it started stealing characters that I had intended to be part of the IM conversation. Apparently it interpreted these as me clicking the Cancel button, judging by the "Backup Cancelled" message that followed.

I hate this aspect of Windows, and always have. I've long since lost count of the number of times I've been typing and some system modal dialog popped up and then vanished again before I even had a chance to read it. And I find myself wondering "What did that say, and what have operation did I just authorise, or possibly cancel, on my system?" The backup today is unusual in that I do at least know exactly what got cancelled...

What's particularly irritating is that Windows seems to have a mechanism to avoid this. When most applications try to pop to the front, Windows just ignores them, and makes their entry on the task bar light up instead. That way I can go and deal with them when I'm ready. That's a perfect solution to the problem. So why did they fall at the last fence and not bother to implement this for certain dialogs? What's so special about backup that it's OK for it to get in my face at exactly the wrong moment?

I can see that there might be some dialogs that are so important that I'm really not allowed to ignore them. I'd prefer it if Windows didn't force that on me, but if there really is no alternative, then it certainly shouldn't make it so easy to dismiss the thing before I've had a chance to see it. If there really is a need for dialogs that pop right to the front without notice (and I'm not really convinced there is), then Windows needs something to detect that I'm in the middle of typing, and if a dialog box steals the focus mid-sentence, it should avoid processing keyboard input for a short while, or better, let the dialog appear, but don't move the focus to it.

But really, I'd prefer it if nothing had the ability to steal the focus when I'm in the middle of typing something.

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