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Windows Confidential: The Tumultuous History of ‘Up One Level’

Doing something as simple as returning to an earlier folder, directory or path can be a bit more confusing than you may imagine.

Raymond Chen

Navigating to the parent folder—how hard can that be? In Windows 1.0 and Windows 2.0, any file management you had to do would require the assistance of the MS-DOS Executive. Using that program, you could navigate to the parent directory—they were still called directories then, because we didn't have virtual folders yet—by pressing Backspace.

In Windows 3.0, the MS-DOS Executive was replaced with File Manager. In File Manager, you could navigate to the parent directory by clicking on the [..] item that appears at the top of the directory listing.

This “command masquerading as a file” was carried over into early versions of Explorer in Windows 95. Each folder had a virtual item called something like “Up One Level.” If you double-clicked this, the view would navigate. The designers recognized that this behavior was pretty weird, and they changed it to a toolbar button. The Backspace keyboard shortcut remained as a leftover from File Manager.

And for many years, that’s how things were.

Going Up?

With the advent of Windows Vista, there were many changes to navigation within the redesigned Explorer frame window. The “Up One Level” button was now redundant with the breadcrumb-style address bar. To move to the parent folder (or any other folder), you could simply click on its name in the address bar.

Now that Explorer had “Forward” and “Back” buttons, the Backspace keyboard shortcut was remapped to Back to be consistent with Internet Explorer. If there was nowhere to go “Back” to, then it acted like “Up One Level.” Meanwhile, the keyboard combination Alt+Up was assigned to the “Up One Level” command.

Removing redundancy in UIs is more than an obsessive-compulsive behavior. Research demonstrates that having multiple, visible ways of accomplishing the same thing causes users confusion. They see two ways of doing the same thing and think there must be something wrong, or at the very least, there must be some subtle difference between the two options.

Often, the resulting conversation goes like this:

“If I want to go up one level, do I click the ‘Up One Level’ button, or do I click the name in the address bar?”

“It doesn’t matter, do whichever one you like.”

“But which one should I do?”

“Whichever is more convenient for you.”

“You’re not answering my question. Which one should I do? Just tell me which one and I’ll do it. Right now, it looks like there are two ways of doing it, and I’m afraid that I’m going to pick the wrong one. There must be a difference. Otherwise, why provide two options?”

It makes sense when you put it that way. It’s as if the system contained a dialog box with three options: Yes, Yes and No.

Surely there must be some difference between the two Yes options, right? Otherwise, why would you have two separate options for accomplishing the same result?

So for those of you still looking for your “Up One Level” button, it’s right there on the address bar:

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And again, the keyboard shortcut is Alt+Up.

Back in Windows 1.0, the MS-DOS Executive displayed the path to the directory being browsed in a static text box. There was a secret, though. Clicking on the static text box was a shortcut for the “Change Directory” command, which popped up a dialog box and asked you to type the directory to which you wanted to change.

As a double-secret feature, the path component you clicked on was actually the default contents of the dialog box. When one of my colleagues from the kernel team saw that the new address bar design in Windows Vista revived a feature from 1985, he burst out laughing. His coworkers, unaware of why he found the situation amusing, merely looked at him kind of funny.

Raymond Chen

Raymond Chen's* Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deals with Windows history, Win32 programming and the illusory repair powers of black electrical tape.*