Holding the line

“On average, Office users spend more 1-on-1 time with Office than with their spouse”

This (unfortunately unsourced) gem comes from Jensen Harris’s presentation on the creation of the new “ribbon” based interface in Office 2007. While I think that quote probably says quite a bit about what is wrong with the world, it also tells you that how humans interact with computers is a very big deal. Ones relationship with the tools of their trade in any line of work is going to be necessarily intense and emotional. As software becomes more of a requirement than an option in most lines of work, companies like Microsoft and Apple spend staggering amounts of money studying people interacting with their software.  “Hundreds of millions” were supposedly spent on developing the new interface for Office 2007 according to Harris.

For all the fanfare, the ribbon is just the latest reshuffling of the same windows, icons, menus and folders that were developed at Xerox PARC in the early seventies. The problems in interface design today are largely to do with programs so rich with features that their menus are beginning to look like a rats nest of pop-ups, fly-outs, toolbars, menus, sub-menus and sub-sub-menus (and often sub- sub-sub-menus). Harris says that the research his team has done showed that users felt a loss of control and a loss of a sense of mastery.

I can’t help but wonder if some of these feelings are common to all GUI programs, not just Office. Most people seem to think of the Command Line Interface as the absence of an interface, and are terrified by the monochrome starkness and requirement that at least a few commands are known before the user can start. The first GUI based personal computers (Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh) were a rejection of the CLI and a way to open up computing to a wider audience.

“No command line interface was available on the Macintosh; you talked to it with the mouse, or not at all. This was a statement of sorts, a credential of revolutionary purity. It seemed that the designers of the Mac intended to sweep Command Line Interfaces into the dustbin of history.”    ~~ Neal Stephenson – In the Beginning was the Command Line

The problem was that to make these new GUI’s understandable to users the developers created the now ubiquitous “desktop metaphor”. Users would know what to do in this new virtual world because it would mirror aspects of the physical world. Everything in it would be presented to them as objects on a virtual desktop with folders to organize. However users don’t experience their desktops as a metaphor, for them they are real:

“Back in 1984, explanations of the original Mac interface to users who had never seen a GUI before inevitably included an explanation of icons that went something like this: “This icon represents your file on disk.” But to the surprise of many, users very quickly discarded any semblance of indirection. This icon is my file. My file is this icon. One is not a “representation of” or an “interface to” the other. Such relationships were foreign to most people, and constituted unnecessary mental baggage when there was a much more simple and direct connection to what they knew of reality.” ~~John Siracusa – About the Finder…

Computer use in GUI environments is exploratory, tasks are completed by hunting down menu items and unearthing option dialogs, navigating an environment, like a rat navigating a maze for a piece of cheese, that, for them, might as well be real. The reward at the end of the process might be empowering, but the path to the reward is not.

Command line interfaces offer a very different experience for the user. In many cases users can accomplish the same task but the experience of the path to that end result is very different. The CLI sets up a different kind of relationship with the user, one that also echoes the users real world experience; a master/slave relationship. Because of this, working at the command line is empowering: you issue a command, the computer does it. If I type “aptitude install firefox”, aptitude (The program Ubuntu uses to add and remove programs) installs Firefox. Commands like “su” and “sudo” only reinforce the perception of the machines subservience, allowing you to override even its objections. It’s a very different feeling than fishing through a folder tree trying to find “setup.exe” so you can double click on it and then click “next” a half dozen times.

Words like “power” and “control” tend to come up a fair bit in where the command line is discussed, but although there are plenty of good things to say about GUI’s those are not the first things that spring to mind when describing your feelings about using one. Though there are some that dismiss use of the command line as a major usability roadblock, hopefully as the use of GNU/Linux based systems grows, more people will recognise that it is an efficient and empowering way to get things done. When that happens even normal people will find XKCD funny…

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