Micromodes

One of the settings for OmniGraffle is that, after a single use, a tool (such as the line tool) reverts back to its default state (the pointer). Double-tapping on text in the iPhone and iPad brings up its cut-and-paste features, which disappear after the action is completed. Microsoft Office 2007 has its “minibar” that appears when a user highlights some text.

These are examples of what I’m naming micromodes, which are when a user, knowingly or unknowingly, initiates a mode that lasts for the duration of a single action, then turns off.

They are related to, but not the same as, what Jef Raskin in The Humane Interface called “quasimodes”. Quasimodes, however, last as long as the user engages them (by holding down the shift key, for example), while micromodes vanish once the conditions or action that invoked them change.

Micromodes could have be used in non-traditional interfaces in addition to traditional GUIs. For instance, in voice interfaces, a command word could be said to turn the interface on, which initiates a micromode in which another command could be issued. “Lights! Dim!” or “TV! Off!” (A fictional version of this is Star Trek: “Computer, Locate Commander Riker!”) Similarly, with gestural interfaces, one gesture could “wake up” the system, putting it into a micromode in which another gestural command could be issued. In these cases, micromodes are used to prevent accidental triggering. (In both these examples, the micromode would have to time out after a certain period of time.)

Micromodes are most useful for rapid task switching (as in OmniGraffle) or for contextual use (as in Office 2007 and cut and paste on iPhone/iPad).

Update: Turns out (unsurprisingly) this has been named before, as One-Off Mode by Jenifer Tidwell. A Google search revealed it’s definitely not in common use, but then again, neither is the pattern.