Are Your Users Stuck in "P" Mode?

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🗓️ Publish Date
August 8, 2006
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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 toolswhat we can do to help push users out of that little comfort/automatic zone and into the more interesting thingswhat 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