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Hey You! Stop Using the Apply Button and Just Click OK! [Geek Rants]

As a computer geek, I often find myself helping people, and watching them change settings on their PC… and they almost always click the Apply button, and then the OK button. Why?

Whenever you encounter a dialog box in Windows, there are the standard OK, Cancel, Apply buttons—but you don’t actually have to click the Apply button first.

image

The OK button does the same thing, saves the settings, and then closes the dialog box… saving you an extra click. Don’t believe me? Try it out for yourself. Only the worst possible application won’t behave that way, and you probably don’t want to use that type of application to begin with.

The only exception to this rule is a multiple tab dialog box, on a badly written application. Sometimes… your settings on one tab won’t stick unless you click Apply.

image

Note that in this particular case, you can make changes in any one of the tabs, and they will carry through without having to click Apply, because this dialog window is well written. We’re just using the screenshot as an example of a multiple tab setting interface.

So now that you know better, you can tell us… do you always use the Apply button first? Have you ever found an instance where it behaves differently?

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/23/10

Comments (41)

  1. Chris Fullelove

    I completely agree with this! I have long found this an annoyance also. Thank you for addressing it. I very much hope people listen…

    I haven’t personally found any of the (OK, Cancel,Apply) style dialogue boxes to forget changes if pushing only OK… perhaps I’m just lucky.

  2. Antonio

    Lol, I always apply first ‘just in case’. But you are right: it doesn’t make any sense.

  3. RCG3

    Depends on the situation … if you’re out to “try” something it makes sense to use APPLY .. like with desktop enhancements, things that are visually effective … screen rez, center/tile/stretch the desktop, etc.

    Those other times its probably just habit.
    ;-)

  4. Matthew Guay

    Great point … only excuse for most people is “Old habits die hard”. Now, what we really need is for programmers to start leaving the Apply button off unless it is absolutely necessary. With instant previews in Windows 7 in so many things (e.g. when you change your background, you see it immediately after selecting it), it’s time for Apply to die :)

  5. cheang

    Not always “Old habits die hard”, but “One extra click better than start over again” for me.
    One example is the input method setting during the installation of all Windows versions before Vista, the dialog box doesn’t provide the desired input method before you Apply the checkbox installing Eastern Asian languages.

  6. Josh

    The Apply button isn’t totally pointless, I occasionally use it when I want to test out a setting, since clicking apply doesn’t close the whole dialog (a bit of a pain if you want to change it back quickly).

    On the multiple tab dialog box issue with some apps, wouldn’t that require more code, since the TabControl basically just shows/hides the content within it (not modifing the controls’ values)? Why bother?

  7. Scott

    Sometimes, you may want to view the settings change to make sure that’s what you really want (for example, changing display properties). Clicking “Apply” keeps the settings box open, so if you want to see what a different setting would do, you don’t have to go through the process of reopening that dialog box. In those cases, clicking “Apply” saves several steps, compared to clicking “OK.”

  8. Dan

    The best use of the apply button on a interface is normally used for applying the users changes and allowing them to see the changes without having to reopen the dialog in order to revert the changes or try another(which in my opinion is very annoying). It is also useful to have to save settings on a multi tabbed interface prior to moving to the next tab. In the second case I have heard many complaints that a user made multiple changes on the first 2 tabs and then made a mistake on the third so they clicked cancel, but doing so also canceled the changes made that were fine on tab 1 and 2.

    As a programmer one of the hardest task faced on a daily basis is to find a balance between satisfying everyones particular style of computing (some users prefer hot keys over mouse clicking…) and creating a user interface that is not confusing. Unfortunately the “standard’s” have been set by the operating system’s interface and over the years they have accumulated multiple input methods (accumulated being the key word here). This can be a very tedious and time consuming task to create such an interface that allows everyone to be happy and also cover all possible combinations that may allow the data integrity to suffer.

  9. Mike Dedmon

    I agree totally, but what REALLY bugs me is when people open a dialog, decide they don’t want to make any changes, but click OK anyway. Technically that is making a change… Press the cancel button if you don’t want to make any changes.

  10. Glen Harness

    And while they’re at it, stop using the left arrow key, then hitting the delete key a bunch of times to erase text in a text box or document. Use the backspace key!

  11. Tom

    As one who usually uses the “apply” button first I have to agree with Dan’s comments. Sometimes I’d like to see what’ll happen before deciding whether to save the change(s) or not. Other times I had SNAFUs because I didn’t use the “apply” button on different tabs of a dialog box.
    Another example of “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” :-)

  12. Jami

    I always just click OK, but most end users hit apply first, then look at it a few seconds, and then hit OK. The only time I could see apply coming in handy is if you are changing multiple things, but in the middle of it you have to do something else so you can save what you were doing and come back to it without reopening. (and also leave it open to remember what you were in the middle of) :) A few times I’ve been told to hit apply by people I am helping and had to explain it.

  13. Guest

    I can only recall one instance where you HAVE to use the Apply button and that’s in Services. If a service is disabled it can’t be started. So, you have to change the status to manual or automatic. Clicking Apply then enables the Start function. (But, once you have started the service then you don’t need to click Apply and then OK, just OK :)

  14. Daniel

    That definitely is annoying… but nothing trumps the sinking feeling when you log into your friend’s computer and there sits the Windows Update icon in the notification bar…

  15. Earl Truss

    This is a poorly considered or lazy choice on most dialogs these days. The two buttons are really “(OK) make changes and close dialog” and “(Apply) changes and leave dialog open”. I seem to remember in past versions of Windows or some applications that if you did not click on Apply before OK or Close that it would discard your changes but it was too long ago and I can’t come up with any examples. Where Apply makes sense to me (and where I think I remember the flaws being) is where the dialog has multiple tabs. If you switch tabs without clicking on Apply, the changes in the first tab are discarded. However, the use of “OK” is just too generic. It should only be used in answering a yes/no question (or stop using OK and use “Yes” and “No” instead). What does it really mean when you click on “OK” when there is no question – apply changes and close? I’d rather see no OK button but an Apply for the “apply changes and leave dialog open”, a Cancel for ” discard changes” and a Save & Close (or some single word that means the same thing) “.

  16. mike

    I find myself in agreement with Scott. If I’m making changes that are instantly visible (usually themes or fonts, frankly) I’ll use apply to check out the changes. If there is no way to tell what the new behavior is while the dialog is open, Apply is redundant.

    Note: I am hard wired to hit OK if I see an OK button- comes from years of classic Mac use, where the only choices 99% of the time were OK and Cancel.

  17. Steven Taylor

    This is also a pet peeve of mine. I think what upsets me the most is when I see other IT guys hitting Apply then OK.

  18. Jordan

    Geek, I am often ranting about this, you don’t understand how much I aggree with you right know LOL. It is little things like this that really annoy me :-D .

  19. Ron

    Sometimes it does matter, especailly in a network/server/printer setting. If you don’t hit apply then I have found sometimes the changes get saved and sometimes it does not.

    double sided printing is the most frequent situation to deal with in the apply or not apply paro-dime.

    This exta click does not violate the 2 second rule, but getting up to find the printer not printing or the tree that just efectivly got cut down because the 300 page manual that you just printed out is single sided DOES violate the 2 second rule, and you feel like crap because you are a momentary envirnmental terroist wasting resources and money for nothing.

    I say click away, click away.

    also most people are not ubber techno geeks like …ur… you know…
    and if you are not sure and it can’t hurt to make an extra click

    click away, click away

  20. thenonhacker

    I completely agree with the article, but clicking Apply before OK can be a habit *OR* a precautionary move in badly-designed Tabbed Dialogs. This makes clicking Apply before OK, an assurance, too.

  21. bosco777

    It’s not quite exactly the same, but for Windows page file settings, you have to click “set” before you click “OK”.

  22. Phylis Sophical

    I agree with Dan, the Programmer. Everyone has different preferences and it’s nice to have a couple of different options. I use the Apply button when I want to see hidden files is a particular folder. Sometimes, I just want to see what’s hidden, then change the option back to ‘don’t show hidden files’, then hit the OK or cancel button.

    There are so many levels of computer users, it’s important to have options for skill levels and degrees of confidence.

  23. SquareWheel

    I use Apply quite often. Sometimes you need to apply settings without closing the window.

  24. MIKLO

    I have been just clicking on the OK btn for a very long time now,I can only think of a few times where it didn’t update the app I was using. It has happened so few times and so long ago that I don’t even remember what the app was.So try it you’ll like it. :) and as has been said ya will click one less btn……. WOW what did I do with all that time I saved not moving the mouse over to click apply? Hmmmm I’m gonna have 2 think about this.
    MIKLO

  25. Kash

    Haha i used to use an application where it was pretty much mandatory to press apply, since then it became habitual :)

  26. Alec S.

    Besides previewing changes, the Apply button is also for dialogs that have a lot of settings (whether it is tabbed or not). Only a fool would sit there and make 100 changes without pressing Apply every now and then. What happens if you accidentally press Escape, or the system crashes or hangs, or something else? You lose all of the settings and have to start all over again. (Remember settings is not just clicking some check-boxes or radio-buttons, it can also include all kinds of edit controls and sliders.) Clicking apply now and then allows you to save your progress.

    The Apply button is to dialogs as Ctrl+S is to documents.

  27. HydroKirby

    AkelPad is a modern example of something that has an OK and a Cancel button but not an Apply button exactly where I’d want one. I have to keep using Alt+P to re-open the plug-ins window after I see the changes I’ve made. And to think I didn’t notice the keyboard shortcut for a long time, so I was going to it from the menu bar (aim, click, aim, click) a whole lot.

    I think concision is fine if it will not slow me down to much. Removing something that I use often will just frustrate me even if it’s for first-time customizations.

  28. 1fastbullet

    Okay, so why did the dumb-asses at MS include both buttons from the get-go?

    Because it’s MS, I’ve come to assume that they are all, as you said, “a badly written application” and, so as to avoid having to do it twice, I click upon Apply and Okay.

    Okay?

  29. JDT

    Well, I think the problem is the “OK” button. What does the OK really mean? I would rather see “Cancel” and “Apply” and use the “X” to close the dialog.

    In fact, sometimes the “OK” really annoys me: For example the typical dialog which says “Your application has crashed” or similar. No, it’s not OK, but I have to press it anyway!

  30. Ben

    I always hit apply first. Was burned once or twice way back and would rather do one extra click than find out my changes didn’t apply.

  31. Todd Corson

    I think a lot of people are missing the point of the article. Obviously, there are cases where you want to view your changes and then decide if you want to change something back or change something else. That is, if fact, the purpose of the Apply button.

    The complaint, which I agree wholeheartedly with since it’s also a pet peeve of mine, is that if what you want to do is lock in your changes and close the dialog, ALL YOU NEED TO DO is click the OK button! This is like saying, “OK, I’m happy with the changes I’ve indicated and I’m done here.” There’s no need to click the Apply button before clicking OK if your plan is to click OK in the first place. I’ve got somebody I work with who’s constantly doing this, and it drives me crazy, especially since he really knows his way around a PC.

    Apply/OK people – change your ways! At least start clicking Apply and then Cancel (which actually has the same effect) just to throw the less savvy complainers off your tracks!

  32. Sonja

    Maybe Apply should be renamed to Test or something.

  33. theunspoken

    Or don’t let something so miniscual bother you :).

    I personally use the Apply button and sadly it was probably a habit I picked up from a mentor. I don’t even know when the apply button came about, but I do know that I was trained starting with Windows NT and my mentor would always say “Click Apply, then OK.” I never thought to ask why or count clicks to take me to the shortest path possible.

  34. Danny

    It’s just poor, unclear, inconsistent user interface design.
    I normally click “OK” as experience has told me that generally works, but you can’t tell just by looking at the screen. The fact that there is an “Apply” button leads the user to suspect that “OK” does NOT “Apply”. And “Cancel” is not really intuitive either. If I click “Apply” to see the effect of a change, then in most cases clicking “Cancel” will not undo the “Apply” action as one might hope.
    What could be done to improve the UI? Maybe tool tips that pop up when you hover over a button that explains more clearly what the button does.

  35. Irina

    Yes, I do press [Apply] before pressing [OK]. This is a habit, nothing else. I don’t really mind nor care about the extra click or partial second of time that I might save.

  36. Alexander

    When changing some settings, I tend to press “Apply” to see if I want to keep the changes. So I click “apply” to see what happens and then I press “Okay” when I’m satisfied with it. Also, it’s handy to click on “apply” when you need a change in settings done but you don’t need it permanently. I had to do this when setting up a router (custom IP, and then changing to automatic IP etc etc.) and it would have been less efficient to always click “Okay” and then try to get back to the options dialog.

    I think those are valid reasons to press “apply” before pressing “okay”.

  37. Mike

    Well, this article is probably ancient however; if you read the Windows interface guide, it says that the user SHOULD press the apply button first. And yes there are a few windows sprinkled about in the MS operating systems and applications where it makes a diffence. Finally there is a common problem with “buttons”. If someone presses it “lightly” by tapping the mouse key often it hangs the application, some times forever so by using both buttons your chances of hanging the app are proportionately less. Once you do the brain surgery for some newbie to fix their light tap on an app you will start telling them to push both buttons.

  38. William

    One example or a program where you had better hit apply is CCG Systems’s Faster. They do exist and for most people they want to learn one way to do something and stick with it. If hitting apply always works and then OK why criticize what works? In the long run, its probably saving them time by building up the muscle memory to do one process vs deciding which is required.

  39. John

    I agree with this totaly, I think its weird that people click the apply button and then the close button. The only time I do it is when i want to keep working in the window but see the changes (example: Changing the them on my computer)

  40. weirdogeek

    before i read this i used to always to click the apply button.

  41. Gregg DesElms

    I’m in IT for over 35 years, and if I’ve had one user looking over my shoulder as I sat at their machine (or as I’m remote-desktopped into it) confront me on not having clicked on the “Apply” button once, I’ve had, annoyingly, seemingly hundreds (or maybe even thousands) do it. It drives me crazy.

    As one other poster, here, correctly pointed-out, the “Okay” button should be thought of as “apply and close the dialog,” and the “apply” button should be thought of as “apply, but leave the dialog open so I can look at or change other stuff.” And if the dialog really and truly conforms with the Windows API, it’s not necessary to click on “apply” before moving to another tab. All changes to all tabs during the session will be remembered and applied when either the “apply” or “okay” buttons are clicked-on.

    But there’s the rub: Compliance with the Windows API. Not all programmers do it; and that’s where things can get really screwed-up. This is particularly true about app dialogs written in Flash or Java. If the programmer doesn’t really and truly understand and adhere to the rules of the Windows API, then s/he will do stupid stuff like, for example, requiring that the “apply” button be clicked-on for every tab in the dialog. I see that a lot; and it, too, drives me crazy!

    Sometimes these same knuckleheaded Flash and/or Java programmers also use (or, more accurately, require of the user the use of) the “apply” button versus the “okay” button in precisely the manner which this page’s article in chief points-out is incorrect and unnecessary. Oy! That one makes me the craziest of all!

    So it’s no wonder, then, that there’s so much confusion. If the dialog complies with the rules of the Windows API (and, gratefully, most do), then the behavior of the “okay” and “apply” buttons are as described in this page’s article in chief. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

    __________________________________
    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

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