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Part G: What are Dialogue Boxes?

This section starts with an introduction, and continues with the following sub-sections, (which follow on from each other in this page, as well as being individual links within this page).


A dialogue box is a window that appears temporarily on top of your application window to request a variety of information in one place, specific to your pull-down menu command. Many dialogue boxes have options you must choose before Windows can carry out a command.

Dialogue boxes are designed to reduce memory load, and make executing a task more user friendly, since all information specific to your current task is presented to you in one place. Compare this with DOS applications where, for example, if you want to print some specific pages in your document, the options of where to print to, which pages to print, how many copies, and what quality, may all be in different places, and you have to exit from one list of options to choose from another. Dialogue boxes are useful since with a single keyboard command (Tab) you can move through the options in the box.

Once you have opened a dialogue box, you are presented with a number of choices you could make, and some you must make. To express different types of information, these choices are presented in different formats (elements), and are operated in different ways. Once you know how to operate each element, and how to navigate inside a dialogue box, you can use any dialogue box in any Windows application, as they (should) follow the same convention. There are six of these elements: pushbuttons, checkboxes, radiobuttons, editfields, listboxes, and comboboxes, which are described in detail in Sections G 3 to G 8. Not all dialogue boxes will contain all six elements, and some might contain more than one of the same element, but relating to different information.

Dialogue box windows behave slightly differently from application windows, and you cannot ignore a dialogue box once it is open. You can only go back to your application window and continue working by closing the dialogue box, (choosing OK with Return) to execute your choices, or Cancel with Esc). Therefore to execute a printing task, you would open a dialogue box about printing, check the details, and specify other information, and then once you are happy with the selections, choose OK to print.

The other main difference between dialogue boxes and other windows, is that dialogue boxes are a fixed size, and cannot be resized. They can however, be moved around the screen (if you wanted to check your document while completing the dialogue box for example). This is done with the control menu, (Alt+Hyphen), and choosing M for Move, then using the direction cursor keys to move it around the screen to the desired position, and pressing Return to drop it.

G1: Message Boxes

Message boxes will be mentioned here briefly, since they are a form of dialogue box, but do not require much dialogue! These appear containing messages or warnings in them, which usually need to be acknowledged by pressing OK (Return), or to Cancel (Esc) a particular command you tried to execute, or to resolve a particular problem before you can continue working - "disk not inserted", for example. Others could appear if you have a printing problem, where the message might be simply "there is no paper in the printer", and you can only choose OK after loading paper, or choose Cancel. to cancel the Print command. Or, if you have asked to save a file with a name that is already used by another document, you might be asked if you wanted to Cancel the save command, or to Replace the file.

G2: Navigating inside Dialogue Boxes

As with all windows, only one window at a time can have the system focus. This means that when a dialogue box is open, it is the active window, and has a blue title bar. As soon as the dialogue box opens, the focus inside the dialogue box generally goes to the first item in the box. The internal focus is indicated visually by a dotted line around the element.

Important: Any changes or selections you make from individual elements within one dialogue box remain until you choose OK or Cancel.

G2a: Tab to Move Element to Element

One way to work inside a dialogue box is to move the system focus, from one element to another, and then to operate the element directly. Use the Tab key to move the focus from element to element, and Shift+Tab to go backwards. Although it would be convenient if the system focus moved through the elements in the dialogue box in a systematic top-left to bottom-right order, in some dialogue boxes this may not be the case, so be careful - it can be easy to miss the last items if they are after OK and Cancel, which usually do not appear as the bottom right elements in the box.

Once the system focus is on the element you require having moved it with the Tab key, then you can then operate it. These operations are described in Sections G 3 to G 8.

G2b: Short-Cut Keys

Each item in a dialogue box has short-cut keys similar to those used in the menu bar, and can therefore be selected with Alt and the underlined letter. (Take care to remember that the short-cut keys in menu bars and dialogue boxes use the Alt key, but pull-down menus do not.)

Some elements are actually operated with these short-cut keys (an option may be turned on or off, for example), but others require additional stages of operation once the short-cut keys have taken the system focus to that element (for example, going to a list of files, and then having to move through the items in the list).

G3: Pushbuttons

(Also called Command Buttons). These are visually the size and shape of the Tab key on the keyboard, and they look like you should push them! They are used to initiate an immediate action, such as carrying out or cancelling a command. In every dialogue box there is usually an OK button, which closes the box, and carries out the commands you chose in the dialogue box. This button can be pushed with the Return key for OK. In addition, you have the option to cancel any commands in the box with the Cancel button. To do this, use the Esc key. Sometimes there is also a Help pushbutton, which starts the Help program, and this is usually Alt+H.

Pushbuttons can be activated directly with the short-cut keys as described above, or with the Return key once they have the system focus. To move the system focus, use the Tab key, and when on the desired pushbutton, pressing Return pushes the button. In general, the OK button is what is called the Default Pushbutton in dialogue boxes, and will be pushed immediately if you press the Return key if you are anywhere in the dialogue box. But this only works if the system focus is NOT on any other pushbutton at the time, as pressing Return will push that button, not OK. Return will also NOT choose OK if the focus is in a listbox for changing directory, and one directory in the list is selected (highlighted). (Pressing Return here changes the directory level). So to choose Cancel, move the focus to the Cancel button with the Tab key, and then press Return.

On some occasions, the OK button might be disabled, (shown in grey type), indicating that you must make some selection in order to execute the command. For example, if you ask to open a file, but you have not selected a file to open, you obviously cannot open anything. The OK button will remain disabled until there is a file selected (or you cancel the dialogue box).

G4: Checkboxes

These are related, but independent options which are available to you at any particular time. You do not have to choose any of them, but you can choose one or many of them at the same time, and they do not affect each other.

Checkboxes toggle on and off (checked or unchecked), and visually a checkbox is a little square, which is empty if unchecked, or has a cross in it when it is checked. They can be checked and unchecked using their short-cut keys, or, by moving the system focus to the desired checkbox, and then pressing the spacebar. Sometimes checkboxes can be disabled (in grey type), at a particular time, so are in-operable. Making one change or insertion in the dialog box might re-enable the checkbox, so it is worth having a look to see if it has changed status if the checkbox was especially important to you for that task.

Examples of checkboxes are:

  • To select a style for text: bold, underlined, italics.
  • To make refinements in a Find task: match case, match whole word.

G5: Radiobuttons

(Also called Option Buttons). These are a mutually exclusive group of options, referring to one parameter, and visually grouped under this particular heading, from which one and only one must always be chosen. Visually, they are little black circles, with a black dot inside if it has the selection, and empty if not.

A little aside: There is a theory that this term came from the old-style radios with buttons for channels - to listen to the radio, one channel had to be selected, and you couldn't ever tune into more than one, and as you pushed the button in for one channel, the other button popped out.

There are two ways of selecting radiobuttons in dialogue boxes. Using their short-cut keys, you move the selection immediately from the current radiobutton to the new one. The second way is to move the system focus to the group with Tab, and then changing the selected radiobutton from one to the other with the direction cursor keys.

Examples of radiobuttons are:

  • In a Find task: search the document (a) up, or (b) down from the cursor position or (c) the whole document from the start.
  • When printing, you can print (a) the whole document, or (b) a selection of pages.

In both cases, one of the options must be selected for the Find, or Print task to be completed, and you cannot perform the operation if more than one option is selected.

G6: Editfields

(Also called Text Boxes) - these refer to any field in which you can enter text. This could mean your entire word processing page, but in a dialogue box, it is usually a restricted character text entry field, with, for example a 2 or a 50 character limit. When the system focus is on an editfield, your insertion point (the place at which any input from the keyboard appears in the text) is at the start of the line in the editfield. This is shown on the screen as a single vertical bar, or in some applications as a little black rectangle. To move the insertion point, there are standard Windows wordprocessing keyboard commands which move it through the text (direction cursor keys, Ctrl+direction cursor keys, Home, End etc).

Something to be aware of in editfields: when the system focus is moved to the editfield, (with Tab or the short-cut key) an automatic highlight is put on the text in the editfield. This selected text is fragile, and any keypress will overwrite this selection, unless it is a command like Copy, Cut etc. So pressing the delete key will delete the entire selection, and pressing any letter will overwrite the highlighted selection.

To edit the selected text, without deleting or overwriting it, you must first remove the highlighting. One press of a direction cursor key will move the insertion point, and turn off the highlight, thus unselecting the text. Then you can move the insertion point as described above. To select (highlight) text, hold the Shift key down while using the direction cursor keys to move the insertion point and pull the highlight over the text. Release the Shift key when you have finished selecting.

Just for interest, when the mouse is over an editfield, it changes shape from its usual arrowhead to what is known as an I-beam, which looks like an elongated capital letter I. Using this I-beam you can move the position of the insertion point to a new location very quickly, and some access technologies will allow you to take advantage of this direct manipulation capability.

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