April 06, 2007

Command lines: Back to the future?

With the mouse turning 40, and with the number of photos, emails, and other documents ever growing, do we need a new kind of user interface?  Do we need, maybe–dun dun duunnh–a return to the command line?

That’s part of what usability expert Don Norman thinks.  He notes that search engines, both on the Web and on the desktop, now support commands (e.g. "define:photography" in Google), and that computer interfaces are now enhanced by, rather than dependent upon, typing in specific commands. If a command isn’t valid, modern search implementations fall back gracefully to basic searching.

This is something we’ve been discussing for quite a while at Adobe. What if, instead of hunting through menus ("Hmm, is commenting under Edit, or Format, or…?"), or having to memorize the keyboard shortcut for each command, you could simply start typing & getting a list of matching commands? The CS3 generation of tools makes some moves in this direction:

  • After Effects has offered searching for filters (as it has for a while);
  • Illustrator CS3 includes a new, Flash-based "knowhow" panel that can search the Web for info related to the current tool;
  • InDesign CS2 introduced a "Quick Apply" capability.  In CS2 it could apply styles (here’s a demo), and in CS3 it can invoke menu items as well.  InDesign PM Chad Siegel explains:

    "In CS3 we expanded Quick Apply to optionally include all menu items and commands within the application as well as scripts. Once the item is displayed, it can be either applied or invoked simply by selecting it from the list. [See a quick demo, under "Productivity Enhancements"]

    "That’s a lot of information that could be displayed so we also provide the ability to limit your search to certain classes of items (e.g. Paragraph Styles and/or Character Styles only). We also added shortcut codes which display within the UI that can be added as a prefix to limit the scope of individual searches. For example, p: is used to limit the search to paragraph styles and m: to limit to menu commands, etc. So users can type m:print and see any command in the list that included those characters. It also searches the characters that customers enter from both left to right and right to left, giving preference to exact matches at the top of the list.

    "Finally, it also displays the location of the commands so that folks can find it more easily within the UI. For example m:print shows File>Print in the list.

So, what about Photoshop?  The app doesn’t presently feature built-in support for something like Quick Apply, but it’s an intriguing possibility for the future.  I’m hoping we see some developments here soon (not from Adobe, so I’m not sure how much I can say just yet).  On the Mac there’s also Quicksilver, the darling of power users.  I’ve found a beginner’s guide; some tips for searching menus; and Merlin Mann’s podcast on the subject… but damn if I’ve yet had the patience to configure my copy (it’s death by options).  I may get there yet.

In any case, I think we’ll see plenty of interesting app-searching developments in the future.

Posted by John Nack at 6:35 PM on April 06, 2007
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