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Design: Modeless vs Contextual

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Modeless user interfaces allow menus, commands and information to be accessed in the same way at all times. Context sensitive user interfaces change their interface based on context requiring users to learn different ways to access menus and commands depending on the situation.
In theory, context sensitive designs give uses the interface they need right when they need it. However, in practice users may prefer the predicable and easy to learn user interfaces offered by modeless designs. Context sensitive menus are often described as being confusing or having an irritating feel.
Overview: Modeless vs Contextual
Type
Modeless Design Definition
A user interface that provides consistent navigation, commands and information.
Contextual Design Definition
A user interface that alters navigation, commands or information based on context that may be cryptic to users.
Modeless Examples
A classic example of a modeless design are the buttons on an old stereo. They don't change depending on the situation and always do the same thing. Historically most user interfaces were modeless.
Navigational elements on a website that are the same on every screen.
Contextual Examples
An operating system that displays different menus for a folder depending on what types of files are in that folder.
A search engine that returns mostly links to Japanese restaurants in Detroit when you search for "sushi" when you are in Detroit. In other words, it automatically interprets the search "sushi" as "sushi Detroit" based on your location.
Related Concepts

Design Theory

This is the complete list of articles we have written about design theory.
Design
Design Meaning
Design Theory
Minimalism
Modernism
New Complexity
Postmodernism
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Design Theory

A list of design theories that are potentially useful.

Design Examples

The common types of design.

Design Composition

An overview of design composition with examples.

Design Meaning

The basic meanings of design.

Design Styles

A list of the foundational design styles.

Is Complexity Good

An overview of complexity and its pros and cons.

Words To Describe Design Style

A vocabulary for describing design style.

Variety

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Design Thinking

A list of design thinking techniques with examples.

Abstract Concept

The definition of abstract concept with examples.

Path Of Least Resistance

The definition of the path of least resistance with examples.

Modernism

The defining characteristics of modernism.

Simple Machines

An overview of the six simple machines of mechanical engineering.

Thinking Examples

Examples of different types of thinking.

Keep It Small

The definition of keep it small with examples.

Structure

The definition of structure with examples.

Structure Opposite

A list of antonyms of structure.

Life Design

The definition of life design with examples.
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