I'm reading a lot about modal dialogs.

I know(?) what modal means, having read Raskin's "The Humane Interface". I can understand what's modal about a toolbar in a drawing program (select mode, draw mode...), VI modes, caps lock... but in what way a modal dialog is modal?

I get that their intended use is for exceptional cases (errors, warnings), or when there's an unpostponable choice to make (ex: a sequence of actions as when we save an image and choose parameters and format). It seems that they force a single way of interaction (by negating all others), they're not changing the way input is interpreted. Is this to be intended as a mode?

  • 3
    It's called modal because it makes you switch from the "trying to get stuff done" mode to the "finding the fastest way to get rid of the message that just popped up in your face without even reading it" mode.
    – badp
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 14:36
  • related question: stackoverflow.com/q/1607783/503900
    – bigstones
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 21:56

2 Answers 2


I think your confusion here is based on homonyms (with similar meaning); you're taking "modal" to mean something related directly to "modality" which is a term in Human Computer interaciton:

In less formal terms, a modality is a path of communication between the human and the computer.

A modal window is called such because it has a distinct Mode or state of interaction, as the modal window capture all input rather than leaving the user in the "main" interface.

In user interface design, a mode is a distinct setting within a computer program or any physical machine interface, in which the same user input will produce perceived different results than it would in other settings.

Your modality or form of interaction is generally the same in and out of the modal window of a program, but in a modal window are in a distinct mode why which all interaction is captured.

  • 1
    ...I think I got the point, yet I still find hard calling that a mode. I guess I could look for other examples of modal things that have no apparent "switches", in order to have a broader idea of modes.
    – bigstones
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 23:05
  • 1
    ...no, 3 years later, I still don't get it.
    – bigstones
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 18:37
  • @bigstones Think of "mode" as "a state in which things are handeled differently". It's a very general term and for unknown reasons most designers and devs think it's a technical term for input-blocking GUI overlays.
    – armin
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 17:40

As far as I understand, it's because they make you enter a different mode. You can't ignore them and resume what you were doing, they force a different mode of action on you.

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