Users don't know what they want

February 13, 2007 ⋅ 2 Comments »

Interesting: the guys at Humanized have added an option for their new Enso Launcher to behave modally (instead of quasimodally, which is the default).

This is interesting because they believe really strongly that modes are bad. In fact, “Modes cause misery” is commandment #8 in their company philosophy:

There exists a mortal enemy to your habits and your train of thought: it’s called a mode. If an interface has modes, then the same gesture that you’ve habituated performs completely different actions depending on which mode the system is in. For instance, take your Caps Lock key; have you ever accidentally pressed it unknowingly, only to find that everything you type LOOKS LIKE THIS?

When that happens, all that habituation you’ve built up about how to type on a keyboard gets subverted: it’s like your computer has suddenly turned into a completely different interface with a different set of behaviors. And that derails your train of thought, because you’re suddenly confused about why your habits aren’t producing what you expect them to.

When you think about it, almost everything that frustrates us about interfaces is due to a mode. That’s why good interfaces have as few as possible.

The alternative approach is to use a quasi-mode: a mode that only sticks as long as you hold down a particular key (Enso used Caps Lock). That way, all you have to do to exit the mode is to stop whatever you are doing.

They added the modal (aka “sticky”) option due to lots of user feedback. Now I know they have to make money, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t listen to their users, but sometimes people don’t know what they want. I think that for certain products, especially ones that are more revolutionary than evolutionary, you need to stick to your guns and have faith that people will learn to love your product as you originally designed it.


  1. Colin Stewart - February 14, 2007:

    Quasimodal? Holding caps-lock to enter a command? Maybe I'm just being stubborn, but seems like the modal behaviour is the more natural: one key brings up the CLI. Enter to execute the command, escape to dismiss it. I notice, based on your question, that Enso does not currently have a "natural" way to dismiss a command.

    As I understand it, modes are dangerous because normal behaviour may produce different results and the user may not know what mode the system is in (or even that it has modes). In this case, that doesn't seem like a big issue: the standard behaviour in any GUI is that input depends on what is displayed on the screen. If you bring up something that looks like a window, people will expect that it will grab their input, so in that sense its not really a different mode.

    Don't blame the users on this one. I think they did make it weirder than necessary.

  2. Patrick - February 14, 2007:

    Actually, if you give it a try, the quasimodal interface is kinda nice. When I wrote this post though, I hadn't actually given Enso much use. I tried using it a bit more yesterday, and ran into the problem that when you release caps lock, it executes whatever command matches what you have typed so far. It's like automatic tab completion, and it's a pain. If you type "open m" and then release caps lock, you get "open msn". In my opinion, it would have been better if you had to hit enter to accept a command; then releasing caps lock would just cancel whatever you are doing.

    Anyways...I do agree with you. Having a modal interface here is probably the nicest solution. I just thought it was interesting, because the company is so inspired by Jef Raskin's ideas, and in his book The Humane Interface, he makes a fairly big deal about modes (that's where this concept of a quasi-mode comes from). The Humanized company philosophy states that "modes cause misery", and they've written a few times about the problems with modes on their blog. So it was surprising to see them back down on that one only a few weeks after the product had been released.