Saturday, September 29, 2007

Don’t do modes, mkay? Modes are bad.


I recently read Raskins “The Humane Interface“. It’s from 2000 and unfortunately Raskin died in 2005. What a pity, because some of his ideas are truly groundbreaking in the field of usability. While reading, I felt that this book is going to change the way we make not only GUIs but the way we make software as whole. Still, the material that he produced in his lifetime contains enough to keep me interested for … a lifetime.

If you haven’t read it, the basic idea is that we as software people have to know about the basic ergonomics of the mind, just as furniture people have to know about the ergonomics of the body. We can learn about the Ergonomics of the Mind from cognitive science. According to Raskin, the three most important things we learn from them is:

1. We can only focus on one thing at a time. If the message you are trying to convey your user is not at the “locus of her attention”, she just won’t see it. And it’s your fault as the programmer.

2. As we do certain actions repeatedly, they become automatic. Software should try to make it easier for people to learn to automate common tasks.

3. Modes confuse. Caps lock is a good example. Insert/overwrite modes on your keyboard is confusing. Modes in UIs are bad. Don’t do modes.

Ok, so here comes the actual reason for writing a post about this: Richard Raskins son, Aza, is continuing his fathers work, combining many ideas into a product called Enso. Enso is really quite different from other software. It contains a launcher and a spellchecker. So does many other products, but the implementation is way different from anything this far.

The launcher takes over the caps key (it’s only in the way, anyway) and turns it into a command key. While holding it down, you type stuff like “open word”. When you let go of the caps key, Word opens up.

The spellchecker is reached through the “spellcheck” command (using the caps lock key). It spell checks whatever is selected in whatever program is active. This far, only English is supported, though.

It takes a little getting used to, but I’m never gonna uninstall it. And I’m gonna read the book once every year ahead.

And I’m not gonna do modes.

Try it out: Humanized Enso.