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For a new iPhone app, we're using "roles" in order to filter some of the app's functions. This role can be switched at all times. Now the question is: should I always show the current role in the UI, or can it stay hidden from view?

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4 Answers 4

The question to be answered, preferably through paper prototyping, is whether the user is confused about this inherent modality of your system. (If you are ever able to switch between roles as a user, then they're modes in disguise.)

In general, invisible modes confuse the heck out of users at all levels; even experienced users who understand modes want to know which one they are in, especially if the same operation can have different actions. If an operation (e.g. menu item) is disabled people will stare at it in frustration. If something is missing people will waste huge amounts of time searching for it or doubting their sanity.

If you must have modes, I would recommend some sort of non-intrusive way of reminding the user (colored backgrounds, perhaps, or just in the persistent top bar); but the real solution may be to eliminate the roles.

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Yep call them "modes" or "profiles" (the Nokia term) if you need to name them. Roles in my book are generally things which require different passwords to access. –  PhillipW Aug 10 '10 at 11:52
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If you can switch roles at any time and it's likely people will, then yes, I'd lean towards showing the role status at all times.

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If you actually think people will change roles (I'd like to see this being tested) I'd be inclined to show them the role they currently are and make it obvious they can change.

However, if you are using roles, your roles should be clearly defined for different audiences. I'd argue if people can fit into numerous roles you shouldn't be using roles at all. It may well confuse people that they have to change their role to perform certain functions.

Of course, I don't know the context of your app and it may very well work in your situation, but as a general rule I think this feature could cause problems.

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The main premise of the app is to "filter" incoming messages from a server, hiding those messages that aren't of interest to you at that time. For example, if I'm working on project A as role A, I don't want any messages from project B. (Sorry, but can't make it any clearer without breaking NDA). I'm having issues with the entire concept of roles as well, but it does match reality in this case. A different and (imo) better solution would be to suppress the messages after they come in. After a message appears, you decide whether you want to receive similar message. Thoughts? –  Max Steenbergen Aug 11 '10 at 7:44
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You could show the role switch in a similar way to an app update which adds a number to the app icon. Perhaps there is a settings or status icon you could use. The user could then click on the icon to see the details. The details area will give you more space to make the reason and implications of the role switch clearer.

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