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Is ALL CAPS Really That Big a Deal?

Microsoft, for all of the perception that it's a monolithic, behind-the-times dinosaur, has been awfully responsive to the concerns of developers who provide feedback about its preview software releases.

I've said that before, but nothing illustrates it better than the recent decision to allow users to easily change uppercase top-level menu items in Visual Studio 2012.

But beyond that, I was frankly amazed at the sheer volume of complaints and tone of the vitriol spewed by those who complained about the design choice. I mean, is it really that big of a deal? I just don't get it. But I've always been a function-over-form guy. I don't care much how things look; I just care how they work. I care how tools enable me to work easier and faster. I care about the final product I'm trying to make. I don't give a rat's fanny if menu items are uppercase or not.

I guess that's why I never got the whole Apple thing. It still seems surreal to me that people will stand outside an Apple store overnight for the privilege of being among the first to spend hundreds (or even thousands) of extra dollars for the latest Mac-whatever or iGadget with their "elegance of design" and the way they just "feel right." (But, of course, you can't change the batteries yourself. I mean, really?) Maybe it's a left-brain, right-brain thing, but to me it seems a lot like brainwashing. I swear, Apple could revise the old Pet Rock fad, rename it iRock and make zillions off these fanbois. They'd crawl all over themselves to buy rocks at $500 a pop because of the way they felt so smooth in their hands and were packaged so nicely. But I digress.

Okay, I can somewhat see the color thing in Visual Studio (or rather, lack thereof). That was a bit distracting at first, but I got used to it. And Microsoft even caved on that in reaction to user feedback, putting some color back in.

The Visual Studio 2012 RC Menus, Before and After

Figure 1. The Visual Studio 2012 RC Menus, Before (top) and After. (Click image to view larger version.)

Even so, it seems a lot of time and effort were spent on things so trivial. Um, how about the way the tools work? How could they be improved? Should we perhaps discuss that?

Nah, I want to get to the bottom of this. I want to hear from real developers how the case of menu items affects the software you make. How will the difference in the images in Fig. 1 change anything you do? (I changed the menu items using a NuGet package. Other workarounds are available on the Web, such as a registry hack technique by Richard Banks.)

Please share your thoughts here or drop me a line.

Posted by David Ramel on 06/29/2012 at 1:15 PM


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Reader Comments:

Thu, Mar 7, 2013

Why Microsoft thought removing color recognition from the toolbar, and replacing it with only shape recognition only was a good idea, I'll never know.

Thu, Mar 7, 2013

What, does Microsoft think we can't read the freaking menu.

Thu, Jan 10, 2013

David, If you truly don't mind being jerked around by some designer's "fresh" ideas every version, then I think you are EXACTLY like those people who camp in line for the latest Apple product. I, for one, am sick of new looks&feels that will be gone before I've figured them out. Visual Studio is a tool I use for my livelihood. I don't need it to change colors, change menu styles, change layouts, or any of those things. I need each version of Visual Studio to do exactly what the previous version did, only better.

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 AGreenhill

ONE MORE NOTE ABOUT ALL CAPS. FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO SAY "IT'S NO BIG DEAL, GET OFF IT GUYS"... WELL, I THINK IT'S A BIG DEAL BECAUSE IT'S HIGHLY ABNORMAL AND THUS HARDER TO READ. SURE, IT'S NOT GOING TO SLOW DEV TIME BY ANY APPRECIABLE AMOUNT, BUT IT'S HARDER TO READ BECAUSE IT'S AN IMPROPER AND ABNORMAL USE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. IF MICROSOFT WANTS TO BE "COOL" LIKE APPLE (AND BY COOL I MEAN WASTE VAST SUMS OF OUR MONEY ON USELESS AESTHETIC TWEAKS), THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO DO IT.

Sun, Nov 4, 2012 AGreenhill

Great! I've been using vs 2012 for a few weeks now, never noticed the all caps till I read this article. Now I know why it's been looking strange to me all this time! And now I get to think about it every time I look at it... thanks for that! I agree with the complainers. It's a bad and dumb decision - whoever took the time to ruin the menus can certainly take the time to un-ruin them.

Sat, Nov 3, 2012 gerdi

Just a quick comment to all of you wannbe designers who have happened to fine yourself in a development environment. First off , some of the negative comments are really sad. Take this one "ALL CAPS uses up more screen space" .. wow this is really ... wow. Basically thats not true because the first menu letter is upper case in the alternative version, which sets the spacing for the rest of the objects. That size is the same when the letters are uppercase. "Microsoft should be spending their time focusing on actual improvements to the tools" This is funny because with such a complex program this seems to be the biggest error ( objectively ) "FEEL LIKE SOMEONE IS SCREAMING AT YOU?" All caps in context with linguistic form structure denotes "SCREAMING" . In VS's context this is not the case (lol ..pun). These are one word distinctive objects of reference. Source:Wikipedia "All caps is usually used for emphasis. It is commonly seen in the titles on book covers, in advertisements and in newspaper headlines." Now sit down young noobs while i tell you all a little story about slight of hand. One day a bright young developer got a job as an application developer. It was a perfect job, he did what he loved and got paid well. There was just one problem. His senior manager always needed to top him, even though he was a marketer and did not know much about coding, he would would always make suggestions which would sometimes go back and forth for weeks because of technical differences. This really annoyed the young developer. So one day it came to him. His senior did not know the technical backend but always pitched in , he figured he probably did it to make it seem as if he was somehow involved in the project, a self worth type of thing. So one day he while we was finishing up a chess game that was going to be reviewed he added a pink flying bird above the queen. It looked terrible and he did not want it but he figured neither would anyone else. And he was right. His senior told him he needed to remove the pink bird. Everything else was ok though and ready to ship that day. think about it... just for a second. Sometimes people make you look where they want you too and not where you want to.

Thu, Nov 1, 2012 Alex

Capitalised wording has become synonymous with shouting and we've become conditioned to notice it, just like little red flashing lights. I'm sure someone from the 1890s would ask if a red flashing light is really a big deal equally as someone from the 1980s would ask if all capitalised characters is. In a development environment, we are multi-focused when we work. As we step through code while debugging, we watch the values of variables, where the cursor is to step over or through, database connections, client and server side calls and responses, possibly even network sniffers. Having something that seeks the attention of our eyes by nature in a very busy UI breaks concentration. You can argue that in time you'll get used to it, but why should we go through that period of time for something that amounts to nothing more than an aesthetic change? It doesn't actually provide any new function or benefit. Finally, coders are usually all about design, structure and form. We written code is always laid out to make it readable. We all have slight variations to what we like, however, any one programmer is usually incredibly consistent and fanatical about maintaining that. How can you use a system where the menus in Windows Explorer are mixed case (even in Windows 8), and in Visual Studio are uppercase and be okay with it? It is inconsistent.

Tue, Oct 16, 2012 Uncommon Sense

I think this discussion is a form of mental masturbation for developers who have too much time on their hands. Go code something!!!!

Wed, Sep 26, 2012 Michael

Is ALL CAPS Really That Big a Deal? Yes, yes it is.

Thu, Sep 13, 2012

You say you don't care about how things look, just about your final product. They must be really good, like what, a console application?

Tue, Aug 28, 2012 Francois

And by the way most people commenting below missed the point of your article.

Tue, Aug 28, 2012 Francois

The ALL CAPS looks 10x better in the picture you provided. These are MENU items that stand out for fast and easy navigation. Caps stand out and that is a perfect example of when you SHOULD use all caps. I wish I could have back all the wasted micro-seconds I've spent looking for menu/labels in various UI's because the designers were to fruity to use ALL CAPS. The time would probably add up to a long vacation.

Wed, Aug 1, 2012 Alex

WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL CAPS, YOU ASK?! HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN AN E-MAIL IN ALL CAPS? FEEL LIKE SOMEONE IS SCREAMING AT YOU? Thought so. WhAt'S NeXt, mIxEd CaSe?!

Sun, Jul 15, 2012 MarkJ

i personally think that it does not matter if everything is in all caps or lower case or has any punctuation it is not like people need them to tell where sentences or phrases end some people think that having mixed case makes things easier to read because the first letter is upper case and the rest is lower case i think that is just an excuse because you can move your mouse over the words and they will highlight so why do you need to see where one menu item ends and another one begins anyway eyes are overrated as input devices anyway

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 Fred

Congrats on choosing a topic that you knew would generate a lot of traffic (yes I'm on to you). Did anyone ever ask though why MS considered all caps so important that it took a near revolt to get them to provide an option. Why did they not allow us to toggle it from the start. They took the stand first which forced our hands. In the words of John Rambo, "they drew first blood not me!"

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 Ed S Colorado

I'm sorry that you see the world only from a utilitarian, cold, functional view. You are missing our on a lot. And yes, ALL CAPS is a big deal.

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 André Brasil

We as programmers are used to focus on function over form, but the fact is that both are equally important. It doesn't matter a full featured product if it´s hard to use it... And also doesn't matter a beautiful product which doesn't do much... We (Microsoft included) have to learn that and adapt ourselves to balance our focus on both.

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 Rick

Not only is ALL CAPS useless, I'd vote to remove the CAPS LOCK key from the keyboard. It serves no purpose in a time when I can select a passage and change the font to ALL CAPS. It only serves to cause problems when my hand positioning is off and I accidentally turn it on, especially when entering passwords where I generally can't see that Caps Lock is on until I've submitted the login and it failed. Oh, BTW, ironic much that the "Caps Lock" key is not in ALL CAPS?

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 real name

what about rewrite this blog using ALL CAPS and no extra colors for links inside? maybe you will find reply alone

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 real name

what about rewrite this blog using ALL CAPS and no extra colors for links inside? maybe you will find reply alone

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 Ian Haynes UK

Having spent a couple of weeks with VS2012 I needed to go back to VS2010. What a relief. It really is easier to work with for an extended time.

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 George

I hate the ALL CAPS thing. Put it on a setting menu, defaulted to off. Anyone that wants it can buy in, not the other way around.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012 jl

Do you write code? I hope I never have to modify or understand something you've written. 'Function over form' is just a euphemism for laziness.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012

All CAPS and monotone color make it harder to read. For someone who spends 8 hours a day (or usually more) staring at a screen, this is a matter of function, not form.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012 Don Australia

Yes, I don't like all caps, it is like SHOUTING. I am not visually deaf, and yes it does distract/detract from reading.I know of a document that was written totally in uppercase and was difficult to read (allright, it was a Rail Safety Management Plan) - it was like the author was saying ÝOU BETTER BELIEVE WHAT WE ARE SAYING ... All caps has it's place, say when you do need to emphasise something, or a title as above, though I don't use all caps on headings in Excel even.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012 Doug

@GregM frankly, your post was a waste of time. That is the point of BETA software. To find out not only bugs but also user acceptance of your design.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012 Jim

A good UI makes the job you are there for easier. The original VS design wasn't great, but at least your command and options were easy to recognize. But switching to monotone, and all caps the ability for the eye to rapidly distinguish one option from another was deminished. You talk about Apple products, but the UI changes seemed targeted to the bland Apple experiance. Don't make my job harder for the sake of your Metro UI experiance. I'm not interested. I am interested in functionality that will make my job easier.

Tue, Jul 10, 2012

ACTUALLY VSCommands for Visual Studio 2012 DOESN'T FULLY SOLVE THE PROBLEM BECAUSE IT USES AN UNINTELLIGENT ALGORITHM TO CHANGE THE CASE AND MAKES MISTAKES. FOR EXAMPLE, IT INCORRECTLY CONVERTS "SQL" TO "Sql" INSTEAD OF KEEPING IT "SQL".

Tue, Jul 10, 2012

I AGREE WITH YOU, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. I WOULD ALSO SUGGEST TAHT WE SHOULD GET RID OF SPACES. ASWEAREALSOABLETODISTINGUISHTHEWORDSWITHOUTTHEM

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 UKInbox UK

I think you answered your own question about the reaction. If people are willing to stand in line for something beautiful and designedto make the peoples life easy; then people will react negatively to something that is flat, boring and unintuitive. The world is moving forward and developers want to create the best experience possible; that's hard to do in an environment that, by example, provides no inspiration at all.

Tue, Jul 3, 2012 Peter Vogel Canada

Putting on my technical writer/page designer hat: We don't read word-by-word or letter-by-letter. Instead, we take in about 12 to 14 words at a time. This doesn't support "sounding out" words: instead, we recognize words from their first and last letters, the context...and the word's shape. Words in lower case have ascenders (b, d) and descenders (g,y) which--among other characteristics--give different words different shapes. All caps gives every word the same shape: a rectangle. Several studies have shown that most people read mixed case text faster than text that's all in uppercase. Still, you can hardly count what we do with top level menus "reading", especially because we probably tend to find menus in software we use a lot by position rather than by name. It's certainly possible that the loss in "legibility" is compensated by gains in other areas (e.g. "marksmanshiop/ accuracy"). I'd want to see the studies.

Tue, Jul 3, 2012 Mike Numar

just install this extension and problem solved: http://visualstudiogallery.msdn.microsoft.com/a83505c6-77b3-44a6-b53b-73d77cba84c8 simples :)

Tue, Jul 3, 2012

just install this extension and problem solved: http://visualstudiogallery.msdn.microsoft.com/a83505c6-77b3-44a6-b53b-73d77cba84c8 simples :)

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Richard

I must be the only one here who actually likes it. I find I am able to hit the menus more easily, and find the uppercase a good pointer on the space to draw the eye *when I need to look for it*. When I am not looking for it, I do not see it. I see code. I do not make a habit of staring at the menus. After all, isn't the point to be able to code? Now by all means, give an option to change it back. But I see a lot of "You moved my cheese. How dare you!". Just a thought.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Arash Shakery

CLICK HERE OR HERE what's the problem with such menus or buttons?? come on guys, this All-Caps thing is not about texts, it's about some little menus.. don't be troll plz.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Richard

YOURE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT I DON'T SEE ANY PROBLEM WITH ALL CAPS IT IS JUST AS EASY TO READ AS TITLE CASE. IM A FUNCTION OVER FORM GUY TOO, WHICH IS WHY I NEVER DESIGN MY SOFTWARE ACCORDING TO ANY UX SCHEME OR GUIDELINES WHATSOEVER. WE ARE BOTH COOL GUYS I GUESS.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 GregM

Wow, that comment is totally unreadable when all of the whitespace is removed. Great job on that.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 GregM

Here's the rest of my comment, which apparently exceeds 3000 characters, something that this form doesn't tell you is a problem until you go to post it. This waste of time was combined with the bad idea of eliminating color from the UI, eliminating XP support, and eliminating support for desktop development in the express versions, all of which are now decisions that they've had to reverse. Now, we as developers now know that not all development time is equal, and saving development time in one area doesn't necessarily mean that they could apply it in another, but just imagine if they could take all of this wasted time from all of these bad decisions that they've had to undo, and put it toward something that really mattered to us, like full C++11 compliance.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 GregM

"But beyond that, I was frankly amazed at the sheer volume of complaints and tone of the vitriol spewed by those who complained about the design choice. I mean, is it really that big of a deal?" Yes, absolutely, and it's really not solely because they changed the case of some menu items. Here's why: They put all caps in the tool window titles, and had so many negative responses that they reverted that, while at the same time adding all caps to the menus. Combine that with the fact that the product contained a hidden registry switch to disable this change, and it shows that not only are they out of touch with their customers (they heard our feedback that we didn't like all-caps, so they took it out, but then put it in another area), but that the parts of the company that are making these decisions are out of touch with the people implementing them. If they all really felt that this was really the way to go, and that everyone would like it, then there would have been no reason to put in the registry switch. They KNEW ahead of time that people were going to hate it, so they put in a way to easily undo it. In short, it's not just as simple as someone going in and changing the strings in a menu resource, someone actually went in and added code to take the menu strings and convert them from uppercase to lowercase, or vice versa, and then made that code optional based on a registry entry. This was not only a bad idea, it was also a significant waste of time, over and over again. 1. It was a waste of their time designing, implementing, and testing it on the tool windows. 2. It was a waste of our time having to let them know how much of a bad idea it was. 3. It was a waste of their time undoing the change on the tool windows. 4. It was a waste of their time designing, implementing, and testing the change for the menus. 5. It was a waste of their time writing up the blog post praising themselves for listening to the user feedback about the tool windows. 6. It was of our time pointing out to them that they just completely missed the point and ignored our feedback. 7. It was a waste of our time for the people that had to write Visual Studio extensions to undo this change. 8. It was a waste of their time discussing the change internally yet again, and coming up with the decision to not just undo it like they did last time, but to actually make it a user option, and then having to write a blog post about it. 9. It is a waste of their time designing, implementing, testing, and documenting the new user interface element that is going to allow the users to undo a change that never should have been made in the first place. 10. It is a waste of our time having to point out to them yet again that this is a bad idea.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 ERandall

All Caps are distracting by design and intent. Change for change's sake is rarely beneficial.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Keith

While I agree that an ALL CAPS menu takes up more screen space, it is sort of ironic that in all these posts, what "my" eye is drawn to are the remarks made in ALL CAPS. And FWIW I can read these "ALL CAPS" remarks just fine. Perhaps that is the effect Microsoft was after with the all caps menus i.e. to draw some attention to them so they stand out a little amongst the other text in the UI. Regardless, like the author the menus don't bother me at all. What does bother me are the functional regressions like those in the Pending Changes and Unit Test Explorer tool windows.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Hugo

I'm a .net developer, but the way you tried to defend your point is just... silly. Why you have to mention Apple? And believe me, a good design saves uncountable hours of support for end users. Just don't take anything from Microsoft as the best thing ever and be realistic. And please, stop to use Apple as point of comparison (I don't have any iGadget).

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Joe Haslinger Austria

A lot of programmers, myself included feel betrayed by MS. Not knowing what the future of Win8 and .NET will bring, i do no longer trust MS. There were so many coming and going technologies in the last years, and now they are even ruining the tools. Not only 5 years ago Silverlight was THE big real thing to come. Now nobody cares about it. Don't they have some other things to care. That's why i felt pissed on with all the CAPS ONLY menus in VS. (Sorry for my broken english...)

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Trevor Sullivan

The ALL CAPS is really annoying. I thought it was just there to denote that you were running a RC version instead of RTM. But, this was a *design* decision? Terrible.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Swampie UK

ALL CAPS has been shown decades ago as harder to read (particularly quickly) than lower case text. In a similar way, vertically stacked text (i.e. letters correct way up, but one above another) is harder to read than text rotated (i.e. on their side). It's all about how you can quickly glance at something and read it - and ALL CAPS IS SOMETHING THAT MAKES IT HARDER TO READ than when it's in lowercase.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Colin

Caps take up more space, are more difficult to read and inconsistent with any other windows applications out there (yes, consistency is important). So there's absolutely no good reason to use uppercase but many reasons not to. Microsoft should be spending their time focusing on actual improvements to the tools, there are many that have been requested for years but not been implemented.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Chris Gardner

I agree with you for the idea of form over function. However, the splash of color and lowercase letter is a matter of function for me. The minor use of color helps me distinguish the icons at a glace. The use of lowercase letters helps compress the length of the menu. If they don't agree, I will adjust. However, if I have a chance to fix something before release, I want to let my opinion be heard.

Mon, Jul 2, 2012 Tony

It was Microsoft's choice to place form-over-function, so what do you expect when they drastically change the form for no good reason? In my opinion ALL CAPS is distracting because it deviates from previous Windows styling guides. It is also anoying that ALL CAPS uses up more screen space.

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