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Are your users stuck in "P" mode?


How many things do you own where you can't use more than 10% of what they can actually can do? The home stereo you play CDs on but gave up on Surround Sound. The cell phone that can fry eggs, but you still can't get it to vibrate. The software app where half the menus might as well be Latin. So what are we doing to make sure this doesn't happen to our users?

Several weeks' back I took a one-night Digital SLR class, and at the beginning the teacher asked us each to say why we were there. All 18 of us said the same thing, one after the other: "I know I have an SLR that can do so many things, but I'm still stuck in "P"--Program Mode--and I don't know how to use anything else." In other words, we were all using our pricey bazillion-megapixel cameras like point-and-shoot disposables.

Here we are with all this power and flexibility, and we can't get past AUTOMATIC. Why? It's tempting to just write it off as a usability flaw. But that's not the case with my camera--the Nikon D200 is dead easy to adjust. For most of us, the problem was NOT that we couldn't learn how to use anything but automatic "P" mode. The problem was that we didn't know why or when to use anything else.

It wasn't simply a camera problem--it was a photography problem. The camera manuals describe precisely how to turn the dials and push the buttons, but never tell us why we'd want to. They focus on the tool rather than the thing the tool enables (taking pictures). What good does it do to master a tool if we haven't understood (let alone mastered) the thing we're using the tool for?

As we've talked about a zillion times on this blog--where there is passion, there is always a user kicking ass. If users are stuck in permanent beginner mode, and can't really do anything interesting or cool with a thing (product, service, etc.), they're not likely to become passionate. They grow bored or frustrated and then that "tool" turns to shelfware.


[Note: I'm not talking about a scenario where the green circle is just too damn big because they've added too damn many features. This is about where the user is stuck not being able to do any of the good stuff. Remember, this is the "passionate users" blog...]

What's your product or service equivalent of "P" mode?
Are your users stuck with a small purple circle of capability within a huge green circle of possibilities? We have to keep asking ourselves:

1) Are we focusing too much on the tool (e.g. camera) rather than the thing our users are trying to do with the tool (e.g. photography)? And by "focusing", I mean that your documentation, support, training, marketing, and possibly product design are all about the tool rather than whatever the tool enables.

If we want passionate users, we have to help them do something cool... fast. And "do something cool" does NOT mean, "learn to use the interface." (Keep in mind that "cool" is in the eye of the beholder... one man's "really cool pivot tables" is another man's "lame Excel tricks")

2) Is the product just too damn hard to use even if a user does know what they want to do with it?

3) Do we encourage/support a user community that emphasizes mastery of the thing the tool is for? In other words, does your product/service have the equivalent of a FlickR community... to help give users the motivation for pushing past the "P"?

4) Do we train our users to become better at the thing they use the tool for, in a way that helps make the need for all those other features seem obvious?

If our users are stuck in "P", they'll never get into the flow state. They'll never have that hi-resolution experience. They'll never become passionate.

Soooooo... let's assume we do all that--we help our users get past "P" and into the good stuff. The challenging stuff. They learn, they practice, they master the tool. Then what? What is the implication of a user who does master the tool?


On the surface, simply increasing the size of the user's purple circle relative to the product's big-ass green circle seems like the right thing to do. But is it? Is there a limit? Should there always be a little buffer zone of green just beyond the user's capabilities? And capabilities for what? How would you label the purple and green circles? Would you include the capabilities of the tool AND the potential things the tool could let you do?

I'd love to hear your thoughts about:

* why users (of some things) are so often stuck in "P"
* how this applies to things other than tools
* what we can do to help push users out of that little comfort/automatic zone and into the more interesting things
* what does it mean when the purple circle starts to fill the green circle, and how we might relabel/rethink these circles as the product and/or user capability matures
* anything else (heard any good jokes lately?)

Posted by Kathy on August 8, 2006 | Permalink


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I think that the learning experience is a marketing experience too. Consumers get passionate in the act of learn, because it returns a highly value experience.

Posted by: Cristián Frenkel | Aug 8, 2006 11:23:10 PM

As far as relative size of purple / green circles... I think it's cool when the purple circle gets bigger than the green circle and the user starts figuring out how to do things with the product that the creator hasn't even thought about yet.

Think about it... duct tape has a pretty small green circle initially... throw in some farmer engineering and bailing wire... the purple circle is much greater... thus expanding the green circle... without a redesign or upgrade!

Posted by: Graydon | Aug 8, 2006 11:46:21 PM

Cristian: I completely agree.

Graydon: that's awesome. I think we should talk a lot more about that!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 8, 2006 11:52:36 PM

I'm one of those with an expensive camera that doesn't get out of "P" mode very much. I thought I'd mention why.

I shoot mostly my kids, and a bit for clients. I bought this particular camera (Canon Digital Rebel XT, $700) to get away from some annoying "features" of the mid-range point-and-shoot model I graduated from. Slow start-up time, for instance. And 4 seconds between shots. And no manual focus. And slow autofocusing. And poor low-light focusing. And a poorly designed battery compartment cover ($47) that broke twice despite careful handling. And a poorly-designed UI that buries the adjustments I make most often. And . . . and . . . and . . .

The Canon solved all those problems, and gave me a 4 megapixel boost besides. After three months, I'm thrilled with it, and I don't regret my investment even if I never take it out of "P" mode.

I'm not sure what wider lesson can be learned from this, except the obvious: "You get what you pay for."

Also, I remember thinking several times when I read the Canon manual: "They do a good job of explaining how to use the feature. They don't even attempt to explain why I would want to use it."

Posted by: Splashman | Aug 9, 2006 12:03:24 AM

Sticking with the photography illustration for a bit, my introduction to real photography featured a pair of second-hand Olympus SLRs with manual focus and not much in the way of automation (the OM2 Spot Program was out of a bin, and only the manual bits worked).

So when I moved to digital (a Minolta DiMAGE A1 "prosumer"), it went straight to "M" because that's what I knew.

I think my point here is that when users seek out a tool to do something they want and know about, the circles will tend not to be too different. However, when they start using a tool because it's cool, or they're trying to learn something, that's when the problems arise.

The UNIX philosophy of lots of discrete tools each with a narrow scope is a good metaphor. It's pretty easy to match circle sizes for a tool like 'ls', whereas something like MS Office takes a lot more work to do so.

The complexity in UNIX arises from the combination of simple tools, and can be achieved a step at a time. Usually there is an understanding of what's going on, because you're just trying to connect two known points.

Er... I don't really have a startling conclusion, sorry...

Posted by: Mark | Aug 9, 2006 12:05:10 AM

As an aside, as a happy user of Wordpress, I noticed it fits perfectly your criteria of a tool that helps users kick ass.

1) The focus is on writing, writing and writing great content.

2) It's damn easy to use.

3) There's a large pool of helpful and enthusiastic users who help and support each other.

4) Train our users? I don't know, but there are loads of other users out there writing 'how to streamline your WP for dummies' type posts out there that are insanely great.

Posted by: Alvin | Aug 9, 2006 12:17:21 AM

As for the green/purple circles: I think it depends on the tool, and in particular the extent to which it has a specific, narrow purpose. The smaller the green circle, the greater percentage that should overlap with purple.

A lightbulb isn't good for much beyond providing light. Out of ten customers buying lightbulbs, it's a pretty fair bet that they're all using the product for something similar.

But that's not the case with something like Excel. Here, the possibility space is huge. Some people use Excel just to make grocery lists. They may be very passionate about using Excel to make their lists (as opposed to, say, Word or Access) but at the end of the day Excel is capable of all KINDS of things that these people don't know about... and don't need to, because it wouldn't help them anyway! Here, the purple circle is tiny, and that's perfectly okay. Of course, for someone who uses Excel to make twelve-dimensional financial models, their purple circle is by necessity going to be much bigger, but even then there are parts of the green circle that the user simply doesn't need to know (like, say, scripting macros in VB). But then someone comes along and implements Pac-Man in Excel using VB... and you can bet that person's purple circle is huge too, yet they have absolutely no need or desire to master some esoteric financial formulas that come standard with Excel.

Back to your camera example, the needs of someone who wants to take portraits and the needs of a nature photographer don't have all that much overlap, even though both may be using the same SLR. They're just using a different set of features.

I think the standard rule of thumb for productivity software is something like 80/20 -- 80% of your users use the same core 20% of the functionality.

For game software the rules are entirely different again, particularly for those with highly linear plotlines where every user is going to have pretty much the same experience. (And yet, games are one of those things that tend to really create passionate users. Hmm.)

Posted by: Ian Schreiber | Aug 9, 2006 12:20:31 AM

I have an idea for getting out of P mode:

You know those "Tip of the Day" boxes that annoyingly pop-up everytime you start certain programs? They often refer to advanced (or atleast not novice-level) features and not a lot of people bother reading them. I think that the "Tip of the Day" box could easily be replaced.

For example, a Photoshop-style program: You could show an image of something neat that was done with the program, name the feature, and then have a link underneath to a tutorial on how to do that. An animated demo would be even better.

And now, for a joke:
Q: What's worse than finding a worm in your apple?
A: Getting hit in the face with the business end of a rake!

Posted by: Ryan Fox | Aug 9, 2006 12:44:53 AM

I wold re-label the green circle to "Things we think our product can do". Or maybe to "Things our product was designed to do".
As some have already put forward: Almost all things can be used in more ways than we as product creator would ever think of.

Posted by: Günther Stadler | Aug 9, 2006 12:45:36 AM

I work in education, trying to get more teachers in Scotland to see the benefits of using web 2.0 tools to improve their attainment. Often teachers will adopt a tool for their own personal purpose but not take it into the classroom. We often write this off as "playing with the new toy", expecting that one day the teacher will be comfortable enough with it to get 30 kids using the tool. But 9 times out of 10 this doesn't happen. They remain in a small purple circle of use and shudder at the thought of moving out their comfort zone.

Maybe this is what it is: someone buys a product which gives them the option to become more 'expert' but without the intention of ever becoming that expert. The comfort of having the tool do what they did before keeps them happy while the hope of learning something new gives them the high ground and, in turn, motivation to keep using the product.

Just my tuppence worth.

Posted by: Ewan McIntosh | Aug 9, 2006 12:49:03 AM

We've recently completed a web application that mirrors the complex business processes that one of our clients has.

For training, we started off small, letting them use it in very well defined and restricted ways. Then, we they asked about how can I do 'X', we told them and showed them. That way they learn how to use all of the features without being overwhelmed by it all. This grows the 'purple circle'.

We've found that the greatest way to grow the circle is to answer the 'ahh, but I want to...' question with the 'yes, it can do this too.. and here's how' answer. This increases the passion that our client has with their web application.

Posted by: Chris | Aug 9, 2006 1:20:51 AM

P mode is good, and it's the silver bullet that allows a complex task to be executed without a full knowledge. While a passionate user can do something great with the entire purple circle, not all the users may be passionate, despite the best efforts.
For non passionate users, a good P mode is the most important feature.

Posted by: Sevenoaks | Aug 9, 2006 1:25:21 AM


I recently graduated from an ancient and extensively used but still fully functioning SLR (bought when a student over 20 years ago) to a Cannon 20D.

Faced with a plethora of photographic possibilities, the first thing I did was to sit down and read the short manual. Then I went out a few times in interesting light conditions specifically to learn how to do the things I could do with the old SLR and a few newer things that would have required special film, filters or lots of wasted film.

But I will never use all the features of the camera and many of them only rarely. And there is the whole Adobe Photoshop area which I will have to explore too. The 20D and Photoshop are different things but I now see them as two parts of a single whole.

So my purple circle is smaller than the 20D's green circle. But with the addition of Photoshop, the purple circle might move partly outside the green circle.

Will it make my photography better. Maybe. Is it Canon's responsibility to do so. No way, it's mine. That's why I still look through Ansel Adams books to get inspiration to go out their and take better photos.

Graham Hill

Posted by: Graham Hill | Aug 9, 2006 1:54:56 AM

It might also be worth thinking about what the circles look like when the product prevents you from doing what you can clearly imagine. Like your purple circle wants to be really big but it's being held back by the green circle. It's hard to be passionate about a tool when you perceive that the tool is the main thing holding you back. Tragically, sometimes the tool itself was the source of the inspiration. E.g., aren't you annoyed by the fact that the WiFi module for the D200 still isn't available? How about the fact that the geotagging via GPS receiver is so clunky? A fellow inspired, but disappointed D200 owner.

Posted by: Andre Stechert | Aug 9, 2006 2:02:06 AM

Are we perhaps just too damn busy to get beyond the P mode? I know about aperture and shutter speed settings, even why I might want to use them under certain conditions. But I almost never do. Just too busy, and P does a pretty good job for my purposes. No doubt if I were a pro photog, I'd expand my purple circle.

I guess this is the same point just made by Sevenoaks.

Posted by: Fel | Aug 9, 2006 2:03:39 AM

The P mode is the greated comfort zone known to man but it does have its uses. For any press work I do I don't really have the time to get settings sorted out so I'll stick the camera in P mode so I know I will get the shot.

The first day I got my Nikon I pushed it to manual (M) mode straight away but I've had knowledge of what to do for over 20 years. Spending time with the camera in the early days is important, I've known folk to give up within a month. All the usual learning rules apply, learn from your mistakes and make lots of notes.


Posted by: Jason Bell | Aug 9, 2006 2:41:45 AM

I am in the P mode on a lot of things I own.

Is it good or bad. Well depends. For a lot of people, the small purple circles you have shown is all that they want. The sum of all of those purple circles of different users is the sigma of the products purple circle, which could be larger than its green circle.

How to get more out of it? Well, for one there is a manual, which really, is an old fashioned textbooks filled with "hows" and few "whys". And there are user groups which help you extract a little more juice out of the product. So, thats how you extract more purple out of green.Could the manual be better, theres no doubt about it.

Posted by: neelakantan | Aug 9, 2006 2:43:21 AM

My bigger question that occurred to me as I wrote this is that perhaps we are in the "P" mode when it comes to our brain as well - the auto zone- the zone of comfort.


Posted by: neelakantan | Aug 9, 2006 2:44:15 AM

I guess it is all about creating the need. It can help to get people out from P mode into other more creative and demanding modes. Your post made me think about 3G telephony - it struggles with very serious problem across the world. Comapanies are spending millions on marketing, but there are no satisfying results. Why? It is simple, the users don't know why they should use all the features. I guess the big role here should play experiential marketing that could show people how their communication can change by using 3G telephony. Maybe they should made 3G classes, like SLR classes :-)
And talking about manuals - I hate them, as they aren't written for the regular people. I have never run across any reasonable manual that I'd read. I prefer to explore myself. I do believe it would be a great move for companies to rethink the manuals structure and start the conversation with the consumers just there.

Posted by: Daria Radota Rasmussen | Aug 9, 2006 2:57:50 AM

Have you heard the one about the circles? Well there's a green circle and a purple circle and they're looking to escape the giant P? Hilarious antics ensue!

One answer is to reduce the size of the green circle until it approximates the purple one, which is not so much about what people CAN do but what they reasonably WANT to do. Super techies can go play with themselves because they are not the main user and I figure they're used to doing so. The fastest growing hotel chain in the States apparently is one that has stripped out a lot of expensive extras that visitors didn't want and replaced them with useful things - the analogy fits any business by the way. They've shrunk the green circle. This of course doesn't mean that the purple circle can't expand if people want it to - but if you hide that supra-functionality, then the average user will not be intimidated and the techie can go search it out (or in the hotel analogy, extra functions can be paid for by those few people who want them).

The other answer is that the purple circle could be expanded if technology marketing was any good (and yes I will respond to your demand to blog on this tomorrow). Marketing is not just about promotion, it also includes explaining what the thing does. Once a user is shown properly then they realise that the task is actually quite simple and not intimidating. It's just the technology industry that makes it so because that makes the incumbents feel good about themselves.

Posted by: John Dodds | Aug 9, 2006 3:48:09 AM

I think there is actually another circle and that is the circle inside the purple one which describes what the user actually does, they are capable of doing more, but get stuck doing the same old things rather than being creative. P mode even does more than this, but they don't branch out into it.

One of the main reasons for this is that the circle they are working in is the old P mode, what P mode used to be able to do 3,4,5 even 10 years ago.

Posted by: Graham Chastney | Aug 9, 2006 4:56:06 AM

Something that I see designers doing in response to posts like these is finding the loophole in the logic so that they avoid hard work. Rather than improving documentation, encouraging community, or promoting ingenious uses of a product, it is sometimes deemed wise to reduce the overall features of the product so that the user uses a higher percentage of the features offered.

Essentially, the green circle is shrunk so that the purple circle looks bigger - and that seems wrong.

Talking about creating products for users does not imply that you give users only the features that they need, but that you also provide a comfortable - but not overlarge - padding between their purple and green circles so that they want more; more of what you offer, as opposed to what your competitors offer. This leads to another point about relative feature sets of product offerings.

Comparing the green circles of two products in the same vertical, the one with the larger circle is not just more capable, but more likely to have users with comparatively larger purple circles. If you're not giving users features that they might use, then yes, they aren't going to use those features.

And finally, I agree with the sentiment of a few other commenters in that many times, excellent products do not bind their users within the limits of their feature offerings. People can find uses for products that were not intended in the products' design. Products can be designed with the intention of such abuse. Software with a good API is as good an example as duct tape.

Posted by: Owen | Aug 9, 2006 6:48:45 AM

If the solution doesn't look like the problem, few non-enthusiast users will recognize it. Mapping from your problem to a perfectly available but differently organized solution is a lot of mental work. You have to be in a lot of pain or be very curious to do work like that.

Once the blue gets outside the green you've "violated the warranty". It's great for a product to "never say never" but you can't optimize a design around such a goal.

Posted by: Larry Stevens | Aug 9, 2006 6:52:14 AM

I suppose I can think of 2 aspects for the issue. First I would say the green circle has to be bigger so that advanced users can still have fun and push a bit the envelope. From a product development perspective, if you can feedback from such users, you have a way of knowing what and how to improve your product over time. I remember reading a post before about advanced users and keeping them interested with advanced features and all (I hope I don't mis-represent it). I suppose the opposite issue would be if the purple circle is what the user would like to be able to do with the product/tool, you'd hope it would not be much bigger than the green one.
The other aspect I suppose has to do with product maturity. For a newly created product, if you were to draw 3 circles (want, use, features), you are hoping they would be about the same size. It would mean you are addressing a need in a friendly sort of way and you did not spend too much time on something that nobody uses. The question is, what do you do next? Are we bound to keep increasing the features to keep existing users interested in changing and having new users buying new versions/models? Making the product work better more efficiently can only take you so far. As far as I can tell, you can only do one of two things.
- add new features to stay on top of competition until it gets so complicated (Excel) that only a small portion gets used.
- create a suite of products that address very specific needs in a very targetted/efficient manner.

Posted by: Yann | Aug 9, 2006 6:56:54 AM

Hi Kathy - first time commenter here (I think!) and I'm just speaking instinctively since I don't have much training in usability. Lots of other commenters seem to be pointing out the possible inaccuracy of the circles as you've chosen to draw them, and I think that's the area I'm most curious about, too.

First of all, the gap between what a user can do and what the product can do looks mightly intimidating in all of its white-backgrounded glory. But there are other circles in there. The most important one is the circle that intersects with or surrounds what the user can do: "what the user actually cares to do." The space outside of this magic circle is completely unimportant to this user - even if it's big.

Another phenomenon that helps to fill the gaps is the "what the user's allies can do." This might be a *little* bit artificial in thinking, but I think it's a point worth throwing out there, because it helps to fill that intimidating void. If a user's allies can accomplish different things with the product, then the usefulness of the product is satisfied without the user's circle having to get any bigger. This concept is exemplified by the automobile. The circle of things that the car can do includes things like "spray computer data at a sensor for evaluation." It's a *good thing* that this isn't made super easy. Even though it's a *feature* of the car, it's more or less hidden from the user. In a weird way, it's "outside of P mode."

Another example that springs to mind is a lawn mower. If an elderly man with
little strength buys a push lawn mower, you might say the "can do" circles completely miss each other. There's nothing this user can do with the lawn mower, but his mere ownership of the product combined with his allies (the teenager next door?) see to it that his lawn stays mowed. Without the lawn mower, he'd be out of luck.

Finally, even for power users of most products, the visual should not consist of a single circle representing the features the product can fulfill. It's more like a series of personalized circles for the user with the same terminology as yours, but with the words "right now" appended to the end. For most users, P mode on this camera probably fulfills 99% of what the user wants to do ... "right now."

When the user is sitting on a picnic table with a stack of paper and a light breeze. The circle of what the camera can do right now becomes "is it heavy enough to hold down a stack of papers." And if the user figures this out, the circles align and the product has 100% satisfied its purpose.

Posted by: Daniel Jalkut | Aug 9, 2006 7:04:56 AM

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