21 May 2009

The new command line

Coding Horror had an article called: The Web Browser Address Bar is the New Command Line

I once developed the “perfect” search GUI. It had all the power and flexibility you’d want, and it was all visible.

My boss and mentor said even he found it intimidating. Intimidating the user was not what I was going for.

So, I went about applying progressive disclosure. The power wouldn’t hit you all at once, but would be made visible in little pieces. I hoped in a natural way that wouldn’t prevent people from finding the power when they needed it.

(Aside: Progressive disclosure is in direct conflict with visibility. Too many times these days visibility is being sacrificed. Users either don’t know about a feature or get frustrated trying to find it. Progressive disclosure is a good tool, but it needs to be used carefully.)

My boss’s answer? The same one Google would come up with. A simple field and search button backed by an engine that would just return the answer the user wanted without the user having to figure out how to properly form the query. No GUI for forming the query. No special syntax for forming the query. Just a box and a button (and a smart engine). He was right.

I loved a to-do list application I used that had a simple text field for deadline. I could type “today”, “tomorrow”, “Friday”, or any number of other simple and direct ways of expressing it and the application would figure out the appropriate date. I was disappointed when the “upgraded” it to a fancy calendar control.

Something similar came up at work recently: Do we give the user a multi-select box full of choices or just a text field to list choices separated by commas? In this case, the text field really was the better choice.

I started this post before I’d seen it, but I am now reminded of Guy Kawasaki’s interview with the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.

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