I'm Aza Raskin @aza. I make shiny things. I simplify.

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.


Visual Feedback and How Modes Kill

Let me set the scene. It’s the comedy film “Airplane“. The flight crew is violently ill and Striker, a shell-shocked, former pilot, is forced to land a jet full of passengers in dire need of medical attention. The air is heavy with fog, rain pounds on the cockpit windows. Over the static-filled radio comes the voice of ground control desperately talking Striker through the landing.

Ground Control: The radio is off. Our one hope is to build this man up, I’ve got to give him all the confidence I can. Turns radio on. Striker… Have you ever flown a multi-engine plane before?

Striker: No, never.

Ground Control: Thinking the radio is off. #@&*#! This is a waste of time… there’s no way he can land that plane. Striker starts to tremble.

How did Ground Control make this mistake? The answer is simple. Mode error.

Don Norman defines mode errors as occurring when a user misclassifies a situation resulting in actions which are appropriate for the conception of the situation but inappropriate for the true situation. In Airplane, the action could not have been more inappropriate for the situation.

Mode errors are a ubiquitous bane: they cause us to lose our work and to kill hundreds of people. Despite the millions of dollars spent on the design of airplane cockpits, between 1988 and 1996 five fatal airline crashes were the direct result of mode errors. Many more crashes were probably indirectly caused by mode errors. What’s the lesson? If a system contains modes, people will make mode errors; if we design systems that are not humane—responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties, we can be guaranteed that people will make mistakes with sometimes cataclysmic consequences.

Luckily, there are methods for combating mode errors, generally by employing sensory feedback to indicate the current system mode to the user. Let’s return to the radio in Airplane. It could have used visual feedback to indicate mode by employing a light that glows during transmission. Or, the radio could have used kinesthetic feedback by allowing the radio to transmit only while a button was pushed and held. With either of these two methods, ground control might have avoided the costly (albeit humorous) blunder.

Both methods are clearly better than nothing, but which one is more effective at reducing mode error? The answer is kinesthetic feedback. Why? Because kinesthetic feedback is much harder to ignore than visual feedback and, perhaps more importantly, kinesthetic feedback is actively maintained. For critical modes, visual feedback cannot be relied upon to keep the user from making errors—what the user’s eyes are looking at and what their attention is on are two different things. This is a lesson that many designers have yet to truly learn, at the cost of hundreds of lives.

It’s not always possible to use kinesthetic feedback, however, so when I’m designing interfaces and facing modes, I use the following three questions to guide my solutions.

1. Is the mode determinable before the user takes action?
2. Is it hard for the user to ignore feedback about the mode?
3. Does the user actively maintain the mode?

Is the mode determinable?

System designers are in the habit of hiding system state from the user in the name of “clean design”. The Start Menu, for instance, has a dizzying array of preferences which change the start menu’s behavior. Did you know that drag-and-drop support in the Start Menu is a preference? It’s a mode that you can’t discover until you actually try dragging things around, and even then you wouldn’t know why it had mysteriously stopped working. But, non-determinable modes aren’t confined to computers, the living room is a great example.

The state of the lights in a room constitute a mode: on and off. If your living room is like mine, there are multiple light switches that independently control the light. This way the up/down position of any particular switch is not an indication of whether the lights are on or off.

As is inevitable when I’m expecting guests, a light burns out. By the time I get around to replacing it, the state of the light is indeterminate and I don’t know which way to flick the switch to guarantee that the light is off. Changing the light bulb is a game of Russian Roulette with a 50% chance of losing. Not so good. This uncertainty is the result of a mode that cannot be determined before action is taken.

Analogous situations frequently occur when using computers. There’s a nice example from Microsoft Excel here.

Traditional phones also have no mode indication: If you get distracted half-way through dialing you’ll generally hang-up and start from the beginning because there is no way to figure out where you were. Why is dialing a mode? Because the first 6 key presses mean “queue this number” and the 7th key press means “queue the number and dial”. Interestingly enough, the behavior of resetting the system to a known state (even if it’s not necessary) is quite common. Those readers who are familiar with the profoundly-modal text editor vi know that trained users hit escape before issuing any command, just to make sure that the editor is in a sane state before continuing. Escape just becomes part of the command gesture—a habit. Trained users escape their commands even though there is visual feedback for the current mode. Why? Because it’s less of a mental burden than diagnosing the current state of the system and the feedback is easy to ignore. This brings us to question number two:

Is it hard for the user to ignore feedback about the mode?

I usually discover that I’m in the Caps Lock mode by noticing that MY LETTERS ARE ALL CAPS.

Caps Lock is a prime example of a mode that gives barely-worthwhile feedback: a small light on the keyboard glows when Caps Lock is engaged. It’s the analog of the hypothetical visual feedback for the radio in Airplane. Of course, the keyboard is exactly where no touch-typist ever looks and, to make matters worse, the Caps Lock light can be unhelpfully unlabeled:

Caps Lock Light

The lights let you know if Caps Lock is on or off.
Can you you tell if it is on or off now?

The Caps Lock feedback is so easy to ignore that it just doesn’t work. As often happens in computing, we get band-aid fixes instead of true fixes. For instance, Microsoft added a nicely non-modal message to the Windows login screen that reminds the user of Caps Lock’s state. Even that doesn’t work to prevent mode errors, as I always type my password before noticing the warning.

More generally, visual warnings, even when placed in prominent view, are not guaranteed to work: visual feedback is ignorable and overused. But, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Renowned HCI researcher Bill Buxton investigated the mode error reduction ability of visual versus kinesthetic feedback back in 1992. Buxton experimented on 12 novice and 12 expert users whom he asked to perform simple editing tasks in a pared-down vi editor. He found that “feedback using the visual channel is generally avoidable: one can easily choose not to monitor visual information. Kinesthetic and audio feedback, however, are more demanding and inescapable by their very nature.” He continues, “Information delivered through the visual channel is simply not as salient as information delivered kinesthetically… even though the visual cues in the first experiment involved changing the entire screen area pink. This has important implications for systems which rely on more subtle visual cues such as changing the shape of the cursor or the color of the menu bar.”

Windows Login Caps Lock Indication

Some nice visual feedback for Caps Lock that unfortunately doesn’t work reliably to prevent mode errors.

Go ahead and look at his data. It’s persuasive. It shows that people have the amazing ability to ignore visual cues, even when they are looking directly at them. This illustrates the important distinction between what your eyes are looking at and what your attention is on. The two are not the same, and it’s your attention that matters. And if your attention is on the mode of the system, you won’t make mode errors–but then your attention won’t be on the work you are trying to get done. Visual indication is one method for trying to bring your attention to the system state, but as Buxton showed it has a decent chance of failure. Using sound-based feedback is more likely to succeed, because while you can avoid looking at a visual indication, you cannot avoid listening to an audio indication (as every player who has been forced to listen to Baby Mario’s cry in Yoshi’s Island 2 knows). But even that is inferior to kinesthetic feedback. Which brings us to the last question:

3. Does the user actively maintain the mode?

When the user actively maintains the mode it is known as a quasimode. When the system maintains the mode it is a proper mode. Caps Lock is a mode; Shift is a quasimode. Drag-and-drop employs a quasimode; Click-move-click employs a standard mode. As Buxton showed, quasimodes not only drastically decrease the number of mode errors users make but they also decrease the cognitive burden that is associated with keeping the system state in mind: “Even though many of the expert subjects commented that they were used to keeping track of the mode ‘in their head’, feedback of both kinds significantly reduced their mode errors.” That is, even though the experts thought that they could keep both their work and the system mode as their locus of attention, they could not. This reaffirms the notion that people are fundamentally bad at multitasking, when the multiple tasks require active thought. Interestingly, “experts made more mode errors on average than novices.” In other words, experts were worse than novices at actually keeping the system state in mind.

How does one measure cognitive burden? By distracting a user with an ancillary task and, once that task is finished, measure how long it takes for them to resume the main task. This gives a measure of the effort required to assess the state of the system and task. “Any difference in resume time among conditions must reflect a difference in cognitive operations since there [is] no [difference] in the physical actions required to return to the editing task after servicing the distractor.” Buxton found that not only does the quasimodal method lead to “significantly faster resume times” but also that the result was independent of skill: everyone’s resume time benefited from kinesthetic feedback and not at all from visual feedback. This corroborates the claim that quasimodes reduce cognitive burden, and that they do it by keeping your locus of attention – what you’re thinking about – on your work and not the modal state of the system. Using kinesthetic feedback helps treat your train of thought as sacred.


Actively maintained modes—quasimodes—are a versatile tool. While feedback of any kind is helpful in reducing mode errors, kinesthetic feedback dominates over the congested visual feedback channel. Not only is kinesthetic feedback more potent and less cognitively effortful, but it’s also more enjoyable: one has to look no further than exquisite key-edges of real keyboards versus the doubt-inducing flatness of touch-screen keyboards for verification. So, the next time you battle with design, try the power of kinesthetic feedback by adding quasimodes to your arsenal. The quasimode keeps your mind on your work instead of on the system state.

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This idea has a VERY hard time gaining traction. It is the single most difficult point to get across in interface discussions. So many people embrace modes because they are a simple way for the developer to do much more with the limited resources and doesn’t require fundamentally changing underlying designs. Even people from the Raskin Center have a hard time.

To gain the upper hand I adopt a strategy of loving “modes.” Start off by listing their good attributes, they are very powerful, easy to implement, taste better than cheesecake, whatever, but traditional modes cause a lot of errors, and the solution is to upgrade to a Quasi Mode.

It’s a bait and switch. Don’t start of the conversation with an oppositional stance. Pull the developer in close to you and expound upon how great their underlying work is, keeping the person in a receptive mood and you their fan. Now in the position as a friend you can disclose to them why modes (or whatever other interface problems they have) hurt people and how to make what they are already doing (which we may actually think is total crap) “better.”

Braydon Fuller

Good work with this Aza, modes cause errors, and can damage our work, and ourselves. Kinesthetic feedback is a good solution to changing modes.

You should start your presentation with the conclusion, and state the solution in the title.

Braydon Fuller

PS. Your dad is amazing, reading his book opened my eyes. It’s great to see your continuing the vision! Keep up the good work. The vision will soon become a reality, it’s unavoidable.


    The mode-stuff was one of the best chapters in the Humane Interface. Its great that you discuss those important subjects again and again in you blog! Thanks.

Caps Lock and other modes come from situations where a quasimode burdens the user too much and interrupts their train of thought. Caps Lock comes from times where you had to write in all caps. While those times are far fewer today, you can imagine screenwriters, military personnel, or professional trolls wanting to use Caps Lock than hold down the Shift key the whole time (although some software I’ve used eliminates the need for Caps Lock altogether).

Sometimes modes are good – in fact, some things would be useless without them. Video cameras, tape players, and VCRs all use modes because it’s the best tool for the job – you have play mode and record mode. I believe it’s best to take a clue from those devices and see what we have to do when we use a mode:

– When something is recording, you have a big red light on there that not only tells you what mode you are in, but also informs you that you are doing something potentially dangerous with your data. All other modes are self-evident (play, fast-forward, etc.). So, like you said in the article, if you have a mode, you should have a pretty good reason for it, and have a nice obvious sign.

- Record buttons are also protected in many cases. You have to do a lot of work to switch modes. This is a form of kinesthetic feedback I don’t think you mentioned in your article. I know on my keyboard at work, the insert key is right next to the delete key – sending my editor into a really annoying mode. But at home, my keyboard has the useless insert button moved to a remote part of the keyboard. It’s not a complete fix, but it’s definitely harder to get the keyboard into that mode if I don’t want to. Similarly, my Caps Lock at work requires that I be holding the Shift key down to turn it on.

So I guess I would have to say that modes aren’t bad, it’s just that poorly implemented modes somehow became “traditional”. Modes are good when the context switch of the user’s through costs less than the effort required to maintain a quasimode.

    Here’s many outdoors questions that explain why these kinds of method is usually fine. Initial, load modalities are generally quickly determined while using style of often the data often the load has. You actually very rarely change the method, if you choose to do, it is very likely following you actually popped often the data, considering that the auto process picked out completely wrong. Next, many modalities seldom help to make major changes to how a manager plays its part. That they command stuff like syntax showing, auto-indent, best places to go on to by using one of many structural action orders (“move to get rid of regarding expression”, regarding instance), and so forth The particular upshot of those is usually, you actually usually do not have to consider that method you are within. It is straightforward and that this manager fine-tunes by itself to really succeed in order to modify the kind of data b modifying.

Great post. It encapsulates what I’ve always said about “modes.” The problem has never been about the mode switch, it’s always been about realizing what mode you’re in that’s the problem. I’ll be referring to this post quite a bit in the future.

(click name for a recent mode problem I wrote about)

Great article. My current ‘mode’ pet peeve are electronic devices that have a little light to tell you the device is off. So, when the light is on, the unit is off. Silly.

This sort of works when the unit has another display of info that would be lit up when the device is on (like the track and time listing on a CD player), but why to I need a light to indicate ‘off’? Doesn’t the lack of a light do that?

On one device I own (a cheap DVD player), there is no other screen on the control panel. Additionally, the light is on constantly when the device is on and flashing when the device is off. The only way to determine which is which is to actually turn on the TV and tune to the line input and check.

If modes are appropriate (and on and off modes certainly are), not only should an indicator be present, it should clearly indicate which mode is currently in use.

Just curious – are you related to Jef Raskin – the book is liberally quoted, sometimes almost word-for-word…


Great article. I think peoples’ ability to miss visual cues is one of the most overlooked challenges in web design today.

I’m late to the party, but I’ll play devil’s advocate here.

The best case for modes is the continued popularity of the Vi editor among programmers. Each year, hundreds of thousands of programmers (I’d guess 1 in 10 of the programmers I’ve met) willingly choose Vi (or, more likely, Vim) over other editors. If modes are inherently evil, why would these wayward souls choose a modal editor?

I propose that Vim’s mode errors are infrequent and inconsequential enough that the beneficial side effects are enough to overcome the drawbacks.

Take the Buxton study cited above. It represents a worst case scenario. The subjects are tasked with making 75 edits (150 mode switches if you’re doing it the nave way*) interrupted once every 4.5 seconds and the expert subjects still only average 8 mode errors with no visual feedback and 4.5 mode errors with visual feedback (novices were lower on both counts but slower). The foot petal was clearly superior at around 2.5 mode errors — I want a foot petal for working with Vim– but the overall amount of time wasted was probably in the order of a couple seconds.

Given that people WILL make mode errors while using Vi, what’s the tradeoff? In exchange for the occasional mode error, you get an enormous number of mnemonic sentence-like commands for operating on text**.

For example, take the common (programming) task of replacing the contents of a string. In something like MS Visual Studio, you reach for the mouse, target the space between the opening quote and first character, click, find the ending quote, drag to that quote, switch your mouse hand back to the keyboard and type the replacement. Admittedly, everything up to typing the replacement text is chunked mentally as one task: select text, but you still have to perform all the subtasks and that does take you out of work flow temporarily. In vim, you hit {esc}, navigate to the string (t” or /”{enter}), get the cursor in the string (l), and replace to the closing quote (ct”). This takes fewer steps and is much, much faster.

By introducing modes, Vi reduces the complexity of the command structure and allows you to compose complex actions out of relatively simple pieces. The only other editor that provides a similar number of raw commands is Emacs. I haven’t seen formal usability studies done, but I expect the expert Emacs user maintains a much larger number of information chunks mapping key command sequences to actions. Simple things like replacing a word (^w, in the Unix keystroke convention) and replacing to the end of the current line (^k) or moving to the beginning (^a) or end (^e) of the current line are completely unrelated and have to be memorized by rote. The vi equivalents (cw/c$ and ^/$, this is a literal ^) maintain consistent commands and motions. I’ll admit that I don’t know the Emacs equivalent for vim’s w movement or how to replace to the beginning of the line (it’s easily guessable if you know the vim grammar). Other word processors don’t deal with having large numbers of commands and force the user to input a large number of simple commands, which trades off speed/power for a shallow learning curve.

Modes are bad but they’re only as bad as their cost. In the case of a tradeoff between a foot pedal (holding down caps lock with my pinkie does NOT count) quasi-mode versus standard Vim, I’ll take the foot pedal . If the choice is between the modes and consistency of Vi versus the M-x quasi-mode mess of keystrokes that is Emacs, I’ll take the Vi. Others choose Emacs and I support that choice. I do believe that all professional text wranglers should know one or the other, the investment in learning is worth the lifetime of faster edits.

This doesn’t just apply to text editors, I’ll note that Mac OS X menus follow the Windows 9X pattern and are modal on click and quasi-modal on drag instead of the exclusively quasi-modal behavior of Mac Classic. The point is that if the cost of mode errors has to be balanced with the benefits of modal behavior (in this case, supporting user expectations).

Incidentally, I can make an argument for why Enso should be modal rather than quasi-modal, but I’d rather do that in a place where it can be discussed.

Thanks for reading.

* Incidentally, the smart way to do the task in vim is “{esc}:%s/\[A-Z]\+\z/errorerror/g{enter}” or or in Vi “{esc}/[A-Z]\+{enter}eaerrorerror{esc}” and then “ne.” repeatedly to jump to the next match and repeat the insert.

** The grammar for Vi commands is count|command|motion (I’m not using count here). Notice the movement command (t”, move to ) is the same for moving and for the movement of the replace text (c) command. I can swap out the command (dt”, delete to , this clears the string) or swap out the motion (cw, replace word).

    Some sort of catch contributed by simply both equally ja along with Emacs is demand the person to be able to memorize a whole mainly human judgements mapping regarding tips to be able to orders. This is just what generally worries regarding newbies and makes individuals think about Emacs along with ja because applications designed for “experts”. However each and every professional was obviously a newbie as soon as, and also the studying procedure for both equally Emacs along with ja much more unpleasant compared to it requires to become.

    A way that acquaintances terms, rather than solitary pressed keys, along with orders has got the advantage of becoming simpler to understand and to remember, both for beginners along with experts, because it taps into your brain’s preexisting expertise in your native language. It also gives a much larger command “space”, since there can be a command for each word in the language rather than one for each key on the keyboard. This neatly avoids the need for “compound commands” like Emacs’ infamously cryptic “Ctrl-X-Ctrl-C” – something which Emacs had to introduce to get around the limitation of the number of tips on the keyboard.


Welcome Karl, and thanks for your detailed analysis.

I use Emacs in my daily work, but I also have familiarity with vi; in fact, I learned vi first, but I switched to Emacs precisely because of vi’s modality. I’m not going to argue that Emacs is superior, because I recognize that it’s a matter of personal preference and I have no interest in reopening The Internet’s Oldest Flame War ;-) But more importantly, the world of software design possibilities is not limited to just Emacs and vi. Can we perhaps find a way to combine the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither?

It seems to me that the heart of your argument is this: “By introducing modes, Vi reduces the complexity of the command structure and allows you to compose complex actions out of relatively simple pieces.” You’re not just saying that vi’s modality is tolerable, you’re saying that modality makes a positive contribution to the design of the interface by allowing commands to be simpler (i.e. commands can be single keystrokes), and a library of composable single-keystroke commands give a highly information-theoretic-efficient way to accomplish a complex task with very few keystrokes. Is that right? Let me know if I am misinterpreting you.

It seems like other benefits of vi that you mention, such as its logical consistency across different classes of commands, could be replicated in a non-modal or quasimodal environment, given sufficient thought. But the question is, can we replicate the composable simplicity of single-keystroke commands in a non-modal or quasimodal environment? And if we can, would we want to, if we had to sacrifice other virtues? These are interesting questions, and I don’t neccessarily have a quick answer for them. But I can start to sketch out a solution I prefer.

A flaw shared by both vi and Emacs is that they require the user to memorize a largely arbitrary mapping of keys to commands. This is what typically scares of newcomers and makes people think of Emacs and vi as programs geared towards “experts”. But every expert was a beginner once, and the learning process of both Emacs and vi is more painful than it needs to be.

An approach which associates words, instead of single keystrokes, with commands has the benefit of being easier to learn and to remember, both for beginners and experts, because it taps into your brain’s preexisting expertise in your native language. It also gives a much larger command “space”, since there can be a command for each word in the language rather than one for each key on the keyboard. This neatly avoids the need for “compound commands” like Emacs’ infamously cryptic “Ctrl-X-Ctrl-C” — something which Emacs had to introduce to get around the limitation of the number of keys on the keyboard.

Word-based commands may never approach the information-theoretic efficiency of atomic, single-keystroke commands like those in vi, but there are ways to reduce the number of keystrokes needed until the efficiency is almost as good. And a sufficiently well-designed word-command system could give users the ability to combine commands using an already-familiar natural-language syntax rather than the cryptic sort of “{esc}/[A-Z]\+{enter}eaerrorerror{esc}” combinations found in vi.

Finally, word-based commands can be made either modal or quasimodal; we prefer the latter approach for the reasons we’ve already explained.

While there are trade-offs and counterarguments to be made, I think this ought to explain why our design for Enso is neither an Emacs clone nor a vi clone, but rather a quasimodal word-based system.

Thanks for your considered response. I’ll address word-based interfaces via the scenic route so you can understand where I’m coming from.

Both Vi and Emacs are products of the environment in which they were written, which is notably different than our current desktop environment. Vi is the evolution of a printed line terminal editor and Emacs was designed for a keyboard with more modifiers, so the C-x/M-x is a hack to make it work on standard keyboards Super-c (instead of C-x C-c, I don’t know if C-x -> Super is actually the mapping or not) is a reasonable mnemonic if Super is the buffer-level modifier key.

I believe these programs persist because they are extremely well designed for their target audience. I’ve run into a number of articles authored by the HCI community making derisive comments about the design of these programs and for the general population, they are terrible.

Programmers, however, are a very specialized user group. The programmer archetype is a mental gymnasts, able to retain and recall large amounts of abstract information because that’s basically what programming is. The programmer spends his professional life translating these ideas to something executable using their text editor. During this process, the programmer will perform the same tasks tens or hundreds of thousands of times.

Given the frequency of use and an expected lifetime of use, speed and expressiveness assert themselves as higher priorities, the large number of symbols becomes less troublesome (abstract thinking ability of target user) and the longer learning curve becomes less of a barrier because it’s expected that you’ll earn the time back later. Other systems written during that period (e.g. Englebart’s NLS) exhibit similar qualities because they’re written for the same audience of expert users who are also programmers.

Historic considerations aside, I believe (but cannot prove) the information-theoretic efficiency of these programs has a much larger impact than the savings in time and typing would indicate. The reason is that I don’t work at a constant rate. I’m a passable programmer most days, but when I’m in the zone I implement algorithms at about 5 times my normal rate. I say implement algorithms because I type at about the same rate, but I get a lot more done. The best explanation I’ve found is Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, which is basically the mental state of being fully engaged in the activity you’re doing. I only get into Flow for 10-20% of my work week, but the majority of useful code I write gets written during these periods. As such, I value my Flow time tremendously and am willing to invest a considerable amount of time into optimizing my speed during this state. I’ve discussed this with a number of programmers and almost all acknowledge a “in the zone” productive state but say that they aren’t as dependent on it as I am. By allowing people to get more done when they’re in Flow, dense (in the information-theory sense) apps pay off in multiples and the happiness associated with Flow is transferred/associated, which explains why Vi and Emacs fans are so fanatic. I have an extensive set of theories and ideas based on the concept of Flow optimization as it relates to interfaces. Unfortunately, I do not know of any HCI research that backs me up, so I’ll leave it at that.

Word-based interfaces have a different set of advantages and constraints, but the two systems share a number of flaws. Both require the user to operate through a limited command set. Natural language is often context-dependent and has tendencies toward both ambiguity and imprecision, not to mention it’s not fully grokkable by today’s computer systems (and may not ever be). Once you toss out full natural language, the user has to remember what your limited command set is and express their desires using your syntax. A word based interface is constrained to a subset much smaller than the full natural language. When you get too many words with limited context and natural language processing capability, you run into the tyranny of choice/regret theory/ how many spellchecks class of problems.

So the challenge is to design a word-based system (for ease of learning) that assists users in learning the command set while requiring the minimal amount of input (for speed). It’s not perfect, but my vote for the best app exploring this space is Quicksilver. It is word-based, uses the first (subject) pane to contextually filter the available verbs (which are then displayed in a list), and does match-ordering based on some sort of machine-learning algorithm. In practice, I usually type less than 2-3 characters per command invocation to do stuff like mark the current web page for reviewing during the weekend while my non-geek sister happily uses it as an app/document launcher. It’d be well worth your while to fully investigate QS, especially a full-on geek setup (start from the user’s guide and lifehacker), to see how they solve the same problems Enso does. The promise of Enso being a (hopefully better) Windows QS is why I’m here. I’m happy to compare the two but that’d probably be better in a feedback email rather than a blog comment.

    James King

    Many of your points are addressed in “The Humane Interface,” written by Jef Raskin. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

Great article. Enso’s definitely an interesting product.

I’d love to see some research on RSI-related problems, comparing quasimode with mode. Using mode, say Caps, enter command, Enter, is two quick movements, while quasimode is one prolonged period of static work (with a finger not really designed for that kind of work). I suffer from some kind of light RSI, and one big problem for me these days is the quasimode usage of shift with my right pinkie. However, I also use my right pinkie for hammering Enter and the arrow keys (I’m a developer), so it’s really quite hard to say what the cause of my problems is.

Brian Vallelunga

I’d have to say that the task of launching a program is something where the quasimode used in Enzo is detrimental to the program’s usability. Many other program launchers require a quick two-key combination to open them. Then all of the fingers are free to type the command and Enter launches it. Simple. Enzo, is more stressful on the fingers and requires the user to type in “open” before the program name.

In fact, I would say the act of launching a program is one of suck brevity that modes don’t hurt the user interaction at all. It’s not as if I’m going to leave the launcher window open for an hour and then forget about it. Even if I did, the consequences and irritation would be trivial. For the launcher scenario, I’d like to see two keys quickly open the launcher, and it would stay open. If you’re worried about modes, have it automatically close after five seconds of no-input. Can I call this a quasi-quasimode? Anyway, there are enough launchers out there to please everybody, but I’d require the option in Enzo before I’d consider buying it. Otherwise, I think the program is really well designed.


Just read the above set of comments about Vi and Emacs. I agree with you on the quasimodal thing, but I have to say I much prefer Vi’s single-keystroke commands to a word-based solution, simply because of four commands that I use extensively in my programming work (given with possible spelled out equivalents):

* dd – Delete Line
* dtx – Delete till character x
* dfx – Delete through character x
* And the quick start editing at (end of line, next line, previous line) commands that Vi uses.

The very reason that I use Vi is because it allows me to do this insanely fast and without leaving the keyboard. Word-based commands are okay, and have low mnemonic load, but the longer I have to spend typing in an action, the more my attention is drawn away from my task and towards the action itself. Three keystrokes allow me to do what I want without thinking, but ten (what I would think would be the absolute minimum for word-based commands, even with autocomplete) make me lose my train of thought, that ever important thing.

My personal favorite solution would be a quasimodal system that allowed both spelled out and abbreviated commands, and showed the abbreviated command while I typed in the spelled-out one.

Just my $0.02.

Dan McCarty

Comment from the guy who was two months late to the game:

Most of the posts here look like they’re discussing a theoretical quasimodal system vs. typical modal systems. Having downloaded and tried Enso, here’s another viewpoint.

You may have a good point about the quasimodal system, but it’s implementation via Enso using the Caps Lock key is problematic. By forcing users to hold down a key with their left pinky finger you make typing difficult for commands that use keys that finger would normally type–e.g.,
“open excel

I am forced to switch fingers to type a key like “x”. Being a fairly good touch typist, this context change of fingers slows me down. Also, holding down Caps Lock while stretching my index finger to type “g” or “b” feels like it would lead to finger strain rather quickly.

In the Enso preferences you “strongly recommend” sticking with quasimodal input. I strongly recommend that you remind your users of the ergonomic issues with repetitively stretching your fingers like that.

Perhaps a foot pedal would be ideal.

Aza and all you are incredible! It’s like the Canon Cat on steroids. Is there a way to Learn keystrokes like on the Cat? I used and use even today the like of “Learn ‘Leap to ‘one’, change to ‘two’ ,caplock, make bold, and release.

Once you do this I wanna buy stock! I know your Dad is proud— and happy.

Adam Trotter

I just discovered Enso via a post in Edward Tufte’s forum, and a link to a lecture at Google campus.

I once was a vi user (don’t have much call for it anymore), and I appreciate the discussion of the relative advantages of modal and quasi-modal interface…I had my fair share of vi accidents, and quickly learned to always hit ESC after any pause.

But my impression is that Enso is (ultimately) aimed at the average PC user, and that’s the spirit in which I’ve been trying it out. And I have to agree with those who complained of the awkwardness of touch-typing while holding down the Caps Lock key. I’m sure I’ll get better at it, but it’s extremely awkward at times, especially if you need to type a Shifted character. And it’s annoying to type a longer command only to lose it by a slip of the left pinkie.

I like the suggestion in a previous post of being able to switch to sticky mode by double-clicking the caps lock key. In the meantime, I will have great fun exploring this, but in sticky-key mode only. I’m only so acrobatic with one finger tied down.

Fantastic vision, though!

Adam Trotter

Also, I think the average computer user has become used to hitting ‘Enter’ to execute a command (as in Google search), and it doesn’t add much extra time to executing a command via the CLI. Certainly, it adds less time than inadvertently releasing the fingers from the keyboard, only to find that you’ve accidentally told your computer to open the wrong application, then having then to wait for that application to load, and then having to close it. I don’t doubt that there are advantages to quasi-modal input…but the difference between accidental use of the Shift key and accidentally opening Microsoft Word is significant, and may be a hurdle for new, intuitive users.

That said, I’d be very curious to know how very young, new computer users respond to this. Perhaps what’s frustrating for me will be entirely intuitive, and more efficient for them. And now, I’m going to spell-check this post.



I’m finding it difficult to type commands while my pinkey is holding the caps key. I’m pretty good at typing and this feels un-nattural.
You make an interesting point about modes and state a problem that you may have resolved without realizing?

“The Caps Lock feedback is so easy to ignore that it just doesn’t work.”

With Enso running, Caps Lock activates the command bar at the top. You can’t miss that. You’ve solved the problem.

I set my preferences to be modal and I’m sticking with it. No, my brain will not be occupied trying to remember the mode – since it’s right in front of me, in the top left corner of the keyboard.

You’re doing great work – keep it up. I look forward to more work changing applications from Humanized.



I’m finding it difficult to type commands while my pinkey is holding the caps key. I’m pretty good at typing and this feels un-nattural.
You make an interesting point about modes and state a problem that you may have resolved without realizing?

“The Caps Lock feedback is so easy to ignore that it just doesn’t work.”

With Enso running, Caps Lock activates the command bar at the top. You can’t miss that. You’ve solved the problem.

I set my preferences to be modal and I’m sticking with it. No, my brain will not be occupied trying to remember the mode – since it’s right in front of me, in the top left corner of the keyboard.

You’re doing great work – keep it up. I look forward to more work changing applications from Humanized.



First of all, GREAT IDEA :)
I will definetely download the trial of luncher. Words one is also interesting, video is just selfexplanatory.
I preffer VI(not VIM) due it allows you work on slow connection. The short one letter commands were invented for purpose of not waiting for terminal response, that i wrote all correct. You know when you are waiting for visual feedback for 1sec it is slow. So the /dd is better than any other options /dw is much better than any forcing the “press something” “write something” (i wrote “Write” due in VI you just “stroke” :) the keys representing the words or actions. The movement and all other modal stuff is from the times, when the keyboards had less keys. Good and simple example is quit and save or quit&notsave commands :)) ( :wq vs :q! it needs any more comments ?
My second note to all excelent posts ;) (thanks i spent two episodes of my favorite serial to read almost all)… okey the note is:
Dvorak vs Qwerty :) if someone is thinking about the ergonomic and fast typing, i don’t understand why there are only qwerty (okey qwertz and weird french one …but take is as one modified)
QWERTY is just old , from the times of the mechanic writer machines, so it is desing not to stuck the sticks during writing the words, not to make it easier and faster for typer. DVORAK is more better, but never massively implemented. Try learn old dog new tricks. I used to qwerty and still do, so ;-)

Sorry no URLs, due i wrote it from scratch and if you used to google you wil find all necessary documents.
PS: sorry me for my english, hope you will understand it.


Very nicely argued. But in the case of Enso’s use of capslock for a quasimode kinesthetic mechanism, I have to give up a lot, namely my entire left hand. Sorry, i just don’t see the point in training myself to love one-handed typing while most of my left hand goes to waste. It will never — for me, anyway — beat two-handed typing.

Besides, (a) the huge transparent message is a pretty strong mode marker, even if “only” visual; (b) I have such a strong habit of using to change modes, it’s really fine; besides,t he key is nice and large.

Another way to look at it is that, even if Enso’s modal mechanism is superior, it clashes with the modal mechanism now in nearly universal use, and that imposes a large mental and physical burden. So, if you could get everybody to adopt Enso’s technique, maybe. But that’s like covering the world in leather rather than wearing shoes.

Bottom line — your abstract argument is well and good. But I’d like to see some a actual study specifically on Enso’s two (or three) choices for modal mechanisms. My money says traditional modality will win in this case.

Actually, Enso’s sticky mode is a pretty nice innovation as it is. Hijacking a problematic key to initiate a mode with a quick hit is really brilliant. Also, why not give me the option of the key — now there’s a problematic key if I ever saw one!


Leonardo Ramirez

I think the whole reflection on modes and so on is really interesting from a theoretical stand point. But you don’t seem to see a quite obvious problem with enso which is the acknowledge of a command by releasing a key. That is, by leaving the quasimode, you are issuing a command. That’s sounds for me quite counter intuitive. That, and the fact that after a while typing with a finger on Caps lock, my left hand started to hurt really bad.


Enso is amazing. Great work guys
Only thing I’d like to comment about (like maybe a couple of people or more said earlier here) is the Caps Lock issue.
I totally agree with this topic, and I’d go with quasimodal controls at anything, except for Enso’s case.
Holding down Caps Lock with pinky finger is hard, straining, and difficult to get used to. This will force users to type keys assigned to pinky using ring instead (keys Q, A, Z) which will cause typing errors and wasted time during typing the commands which are supposed to save time in the first place.
Moreover, the sticky mode isn’t a big problem itself, maybe some peole would prefer pressing Caps Lock instead of Enter to do commands, but it’s nice that way, the habit of pressing Enter for “Do it” in CMD, Run command, and Address Bars.
So, going with the quasimodal setting, the list of optional keys are totally unworthy, Caps Lock is easily the best, but it isn’t good itself, so we need another key to be pressed with the unused finger, the left thumb. What key can be holded using left thumb?
Left Alt? not comfortable
Space? not possible!
better ideas?


update: I have written the above post after spending hours playing with Enso and reading about it. I missed two things:
1. the Enso 2.0 Prototype which eliminates my complains
2. the ability of sticking using Alt key (this piece of info wasn’t on the tuturial video, or on any page other than the FAQ page)

Guys: do you think that Colemak keyboard layout is more humane than QWERTY?
also, Colemak replaces Caps Lock with Backspace. Now what??

Good work with this Aza, modes cause errors, and can damage our work, and ourselves. Kinesthetic feedback is a good solution to changing modes.

To gain the upper hand I adopt a strategy of loving “modes.” Start off by listing their good attributes, they are very powerful, easy to implement, taste better than cheesecake, whatever, but traditional modes cause a lot of errors, and the solution is to upgrade to a Quasi Mode.


It’s a bait and switch. Don’t start of the conversation with an oppositional stance. Pull the developer in close to you and expound upon how great their underlying work is, keeping the person in a receptive mood and you their fan. Now in the position as a friend you can disclose to them why modes (or whatever other interface problems they have) hurt people and how to make what they are already doing (which we may actually think is total crap) “better.”

Hi , I feel a lot more people need to read this, very good info!

Let me set the scene. It’s the comedy film “Airplane“. The flight crew is violently ill and Striker, a shell-shocked, former pilot, is forced to land a jet full of passengers in dire need of medical attention. The air is heavy with fog, rain pounds on the cockpit windows. Over the static-filled radio comes the voice of ground control desperately talking Striker through the landing.


HATE BABY MARIO’S CRY!!! Sorry, didn’t realize my caps-lock was on.

That’s why one of the reasons I’ve never liked iPhones.

I prefer devices with more than “Wow just one button!”. So I don’t have to take them out of my pocket just to pass to the next song.

I can do some tasks without my eyes. That’s why I prefer phones with sliding keyboards.

I wanted to bring up a different aspect of Emacs (and I think also Vim, but I don’t use it much): buffer modes. These are called modes in Emacs’ own terminology, and are functionally modes in Aza’s terminology, but they at least seem far less problematic than the sorts of modes that Aza is talking about.

Here’s some wild speculation as to why this kind of mode is okay. First, buffer modes are automatically selected based on the type of the file the buffer contains. You almost never change the mode, and if you do, it’s probably right after you opened the file, because the automatic mechanism picked wrong. Second, most modes don’t make radical changes to how the editor behaves. They control things like syntax highlighting, auto-indent, where to move to when you use one of the structural motion commands (“move to end of expression”, for instance), etc. The upshot of these is, you generally don’t have to think about which mode you’re in. It is just that the editor fine-tunes itself to make it easier to edit the type of file you are currently editing.

There’s two exceptions to this, where you have to pay attention to the mode to work effectively. One is the per-mode command set, which, well, I basically don’t use them. This means I may not be as efficient an Emacs user as I could be, but on the other hand, I don’t really feel that I’m missing much. (Notably, at one point I redefined C-c C-f as 'compile in C/C++ buffers because I got used to what that does in a LaTeX buffer.) The other is modes that completely redefine what Emacs does, such as Dired, Gnus, and Ediff. Again, I either don’t use these at all or I treat them as unrelated programs (Ediff, in particular, is quite nice because it can be thought of as a three-way merge utility that just happens to have Emacs inside it, for fixing up the merge result — even though this is precisely backward).

Please support the Caps Off Initiative: http://capsoff.org/
(More about how to disable you caps lock in my (german) blogpost http://fly.ingsparks.de/2006-10-29/tastaturdesign-2-und-capsofforg/)


What’s your advice on compound/combined quasimodes?

What if, in effect, you have two “shifted” modes, resulting in the possibility of 4 different states? Is this worth avoiding in favour of simply 3 states (one per button, plus “idle”) which can interrupt each other?

I’m going to intuit “yes” because of some experiments in videogame controls I’ve been doing over the years. In my experience, it’s best for the “youngest” quasimode to interrupt any other mode (a good example would be “ironsighting” vs. “sprinting”) and for negative edges to revert back to the mode which was interrupted, if the key for that mode is still held.

i.e. it’s generally a bad move to have quasimodes which lock out other quasimodes (there are some examples where it’s useful to have this, but they don’t spring fervently to mind) and even worse to have two shifts lift you into a compound quasi.

I am not being very good at giving examples or evidence for why I feel this way. I was hoping you might be able to tell me whether or not I am mistaken, and why?

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Si la solicitas a cualquiera de nuestros Servicios Técnicos Oficiales en Palma te la pueden suministrar y, si en ese momento no la tienen en stock, nos la piden y en unos días ya tienes ahí. Parece que algún momento ha debido haber algún malententido con el Servicio Técnico de Reyes Católicos porque la pieza en cuestión la tienen en stock y, por tanto, se puede proceder enseguida a la reparación de la cafetera. He llamado a los SAT que aparecen en la página web y menos dos que no he podido hacerlo por tener horario de mañanas, los demás me han contestado que no trabajan esta marca.

FRIGOTECNIA tiene como objetivo principal brindar un servicio de calidad total a sus clientes, en las áreas de la ingeniería en refrigeración, aire acondicionado, calefacción y energía solar, optimizando el uso de la energía y protegiendo el medio ambiente. Calidad en las instalaciones, profesionales cualificados, formación contínua y servicio personalizado definen a IGM. FRED-MATIC dispone de equipo propio con una amplia experiencia en climatizacón y disponen los medios y tecnologías más avanzadas, siendo su mayor logro el inicio y fin de la obra con personal propio, sin necesidad de intermediarios. Instalación reparación y mantenimiento de aire acondicionado, calefacción, placa solares y energia renovable.

También conocen nuestra forma de trabajar y nuestras metas que son la de satisfacer a las personas que contratan nuestro servicio tecnico. Además de esto, tenemos acceso un gran almacén de repuestos siendo nuestra compra al mayor, donde la gran cantidad de ejemplares provoca un marcado abaratamiento en la reparación de sus electrodomésticos, influyendo esto positivamente en su factura. Trabajamos con la máxima instrucción y celeridad con unas tarifas incomparables para dejar su Cocinas Teka como nueva.

Dedicados a ofrecer soluciones rápidas con garantía ante los problemas de sus electrodomésticos, ya sean frigoríficos, hornos, estufas, lavavajillas, aires acondicionados, congeladores, lavadoras y secadoras. Nuestros especialistas disponen de las herramientas necesarias, conocimientos y experiencia, con formación continua sobre las últimas tecnologías en reparaciones de electrodomésticos de hogar. Es por esto que en Madrid ofrecemos un servicio técnico Liebherr para cubrir todas sus necesidades.

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El secreto de nuestro éxito es claramente nuestra especialización, la especialización de nuestro SERVICIO TÉCNICO DE Lavadoras Samsung adquirida gracias al respaldo de una ambiciosa empresa con más de 24 anos de vida con amplios recursos y una gran infraestructura. Realizamos el mantenimiento de su aparato marca Samsung en Isla de Fuerteventura el mismo dia de su llamada. Somos la única empresa del sector que tiene en su plantilla a auténticos técnicos profesionales especializados en Lavadoras Samsung. Realizamos servicio de asistencia tecnica a domicilio en Alicante y comunidad autonoma.

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