Over the holidays, I had the “opportunity” to help my mom with her computerized sewing machine. Before you wonder why, don’t ask. These machines are in the sweet spot for some cross-over market between the computer illiterate and the sewing gizmo enthusiast.
You take hausfrau and seamstresses who are confused by the idea of a double-click and put a computer between them and their machine. It seems like it is set up to fail, but it must hit some latent masochistic streak these consumers have. (Or their sadism in demanding tech support from their children)
I watched my mom try to navigate the system with a mixture of pleading and swearing. The entire operation is controlled by a touch screen, which means that the UI is all dynamic. She would press a button to put it into stitch mode and be presented with a set of stitching options. Then she would agrily demand to know where her sewing buttons went.
She didn’t get the idea of modes, let alone understand which functions were in which modes. To her it was a Chinese puzzle box of vanishing buttons and and dynamic UI. She spent more time playing hide and go seek with the file navigator then she did sewing.
Modes kill UI.
The average user just doesn’t get them. Modes are trickling down from high end applications where they have been common for power users for years. Photoshop users are totally at ease navigating between edit modes and multiple pallets. Developers move their IDE’s between coding and debugging modes and expect tools and commands to be contextually sensitive.
But most users are not power users. Most users don’t spend hours in their software. Software is an obstacle between most users and the task at hand. It is not a destination, it is a conduit.
Modes are Tabs
Functionally, modes are identical to tabs. Tabs are a navigational way to group functionality.
Any UI with modes can be refactored to an equivalent tab based design. If you have huge contextual changes; such as with an IDE, it might be clunky. For most software though, tabs or modes will have similar screen complexity.
Tabs are Navigation
While functionally identical, tabs are conceptually navigation. Modes are more abstract. People understand navigation, moving from place to place to do different tasks. You move to the kitchen to cook, the office to work. Having clear navigation to take my mom from sewing to stitching, to embroidery would answer her question of “Where did my button go?”
To most users, missing buttons are a question of “where?” Thus the answer should be navigationally, not modal. People don’t think of the kitchen as cooking mode, but the place to cook.