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"Modal" Is Not a Four-Letter Word

How good intentions have led to wasted screen space in application design

Richard Gaskin
Fourth World Media Corporation

Copyright ©2001 Fourth World

This document may be distributed freely only in its complete, unmodified form, including this header and copyright information.


languages are often easier to learn than more formal languages like C++, but this ease of use can seduce us into use a less desciplined code style which is hard to read and costly to maintain. By adopting some of the best practices of formal languages, scripters can reduce errors and shorten development cycles.

Keywords: scripting, fourth-generation languages, programming, code style, HyperTalk, Transcript, MetaTalk, SuperTalk, Lingo, Hungarian notation, naming conventions.


> One thing that I have often done when approached by a company that has had
> no online presence, and is thinking "brochureware" is to have them research
> their competitors' sites and any other sites they like the design of or feel
> are effective. When they see what others in their industry have done, they
> often are inspired to attempt more then simply an online brochure.

And not always to their benefit, if the competitors are doing counter-productive things. :)

While "brochureware" is not always optimal, the term has taken on an unnecessary connotation of "bad". Companies still print brochures, and they are useful. In some cases a site that serves a similar purpose to a brochure is not inappropriate. If you think about it, most of the content at service company sites are effectively a combination of brochures and annual reports, and that's not necessarily bad.

One could create an inappropriately disdainful term for the opposite approach by calling it "gadgetware".

Whether "brochureware" or "gadgetware" would be most appropriate for a given client will, of course, depend on the unique aspects of the client's market and how your client differentiates their company from their competitors.

Unlike most service industries, there are unique qualities of the accounting profession which drive radicaly different marketing approaches than, say, a plumber or a gardener. A good plumber merely needs to understand plumbing, but a good account needs to understand you: your financial goals, spending habits, record-keeping practices, etc. The accounting rules are important, but the effectiveness of an accountant to apply those rules well depends on a more intimate knowledge of the customer than most other professions need.

Accordingly, most people switch accountants far less frequently than they switch plumbers, so the relationship has an inherently long-term nature to it, and an ongoing one. This implies that an accounting firm needs to acquire fewer new clients than a plumber to have the same growth rate, since a plumber's old clients are probably not needing ongoing services (indeed, the best plumber will see his client exactly once).

The most successful accountant I know does not have a Web presence at all. We've talked about it, but he's just not interested: like dentists, accountants tend to get most of their new clients from word-of-mouth referrals, so he feels a Web site would just be a distration. In his case, with his company growing well since he broke away from one of the Big Five a few years ago, he may be right.

Trust plays an inherently more critical role in accountant relationships than many other professions. With my accountant, while the number of word-of-mouth referrals which become clients is above 90%, his return on any more general marketing methods (mass mailings, ads, a Web site) is so low that he just doesn't bother. He spends his marketing time publishing articles which help reinforce his expertise, and the ultra-soft-sell of such infomarketing is far more effective for him than any canvassing approach.

One thing we need to be very careful of in this industry is aggressive up-selling, talking clients into features they don't need. I've seen too many folks lose clients because they didn't listen to the client's core concerns. And I've seen just as many companies over-invest in their Web presence because someone told them it was all somehow part of The New Economy (which, in case anyone missed it, died several months ago and has been since replaced once again by traditional business logic).

I generally don't mind if another Web developer makes mistakes, but this mistake happens so often it's beginning to make folks wary of the industry as a whole. It's becoming one of the blights on our industry, just as the few truly greedy lawyers have forever destroyed perceptions of a once-noble profession.

It may be the case that gadgetware is a better fit for a client, possibly even for an accountant. There's a lot of extranet stuff that could be done to streamline workflow -- but only if there's a strong case that it provides a more favorable return on investment than other methods of solving the same problem.

The cool thing is that you don't have to decide between gadgetware and brochureware, at least not at first. Even if you do add gadgets to a site, they can be added after the critical marketing material is in place. Additions like newsletters require a significant ongoing commitment to do well (not to mention excellent copy writing skills, which few professionals outside of copy writers possess), and such are probably best served by waiting until the client is comfortable with their new online presence before making that sort of investment.

Forging ahead by insisting that the client build The Ultimate Site in the first go-round runs many unnecessary risks:

  • It increases initial investment in the Web presence, at a time when the customer understands the value of that presence the least.

  • It further delays the rollout of the Web presence. After all, if the company is not on the Web (except for my accountant and a few other special cases) they really need to get there now. Any approach which is not phased to satisfy this goal first can only delay that.

  • Most importantly, it may make the client feel they are not being heard.
    We may be the experts in Web development, but the client is the expert of their business planning. We can offer advice about specific options, but the selection of options best suited for a particular business at a particular time is inherently a joint effort.

The cool thing is that if you slow down and go at the client's pace, you may still build The Ultimate Site in good time, but you risk nothing along the way: The client can have initial goals met and feel satisfied with the work, the core problem of getting online is solved, and as they are much more likely to understand the benefits of specific enhancements once they grasp the essentials.

The whole affair of considering brochure-like content passe reminds me of the misunderstanding many interface designers have about the word "modal". Many contemporary application designers have heard of the mysterious and evil "modal interface", and without researching the issues behind it they simply confuse it with modal dialogs (hey, the words match, so it's at least as closely related as Java and JavaScript, right? <g>). This misguided departure from appropriate use of modal dialogs in interfaces have given rise to a new malady one could call Palettemania. This disease is evident when the designer, in an irrational fear of the word "modal", start moving even the most rarely-used features of an application from dialog windows into palettes. While "avoid modal behaviors" is one of the Ten Commandments of UI design (there are actually about a dozen, and they're almost identical in the Mac HIG and Win HIG), moving every feature into palette windows negates another equally important principle: progressive disclosure.