Monday, February 18, 2008

UI Breakthrough-Command Line Interfaces

Future UI breakthroughs ...

"Want to know what I think the next UI breakthroughs will be? Here are two, both of which can be considered a return to fundamentals:

1. Command line languages;
2. Physicality: the return to physical devices, where we control things by physical body movement, by turning, moving, and manipulating appropriate mechanical devices.

This column discusses the return to command line interfaces. In a future column I will talk about the return to physical controls: physicality.
Command line languages

Once upon a time, computers were controlled by commands. The interaction paradigm was based upon a control language. Commands and their arguments were entered on the line following the (invariably) blinking cursor.

Then graphical user interfaces (GUI) appeared, replacing arbitrary memorized commands with direct manipulation, where actions are performed by moving objects on the screen and selecting from menu displays. GUI has served us well, replacing the need to memorize geeky instructions with the ease of selecting from the visible items on the screen. But GUIs work well only when the number of alternative items or actions is small. When the number of items reaches the level within today’s complex operating systems, applications, and the information spaces of the internet, the GUI does not scale well. Even searching one’s email records is tedious with a GUI, and when it comes to photographs, music, extremely difficult. The internet, of course, cannot be navigated by just the visible structure.

What is to replace the GUI? Ah yes, journalists are constantly asking me that question, hoping I will speak of virtual reality implants by which we fly effortlessly through hyperspaces, finding just the items of interest, then immediately packaging and caressing it to do our bidding in reports, diagrams, and instant insights of wisdom. Well, the answer is much simpler, and already here: it is search. The real surprise, though, is that search engines have migrated to becoming answer engines, controlled through a modern form of command line interface.

We navigate the internet by typing phrases into our browsers and invoking our favorite search engine. But more and more, we type in commands, not search items. All the major search engines now allow commands to be typed that directly yield answers without the need to go to an intermediate webpage. Consider these three examples, each for a different search engines.

* Google: the phrase “define:embodiment” directly provides the definition.
* Yahoo!: the phrase “time in Nagoya” directly provides the time (3:13 AM Friday, when I tried it last).
* the phrase “cars in China” returns with “15 per 1000 people."    (Continued via Don Norman's    [Usability Resources]


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