Wednesday, 2 October 2013

GUI-NG Desiderata

The command line may be powerful and flexible, but it is ugly to look at and difficult to learn. WIMP style graphical user interfaces look nicer, and are easier to pick up and use, but they don't really help you do anything other than the most basic and pedestrian of tasks.

Cm'on guys, we should be able to do better than this. We should be able to design beautiful, powerful tools with a UI concept that combines the best of both worlds.

A beautiful, well designed UI for the power user: The design sense of Apple, the good looks of Lighttable and Sublime text; the power and flexibility of Unix.

The Acme editor from Plan9 shows us how radical we can be. IPython also makes a decent enough effort in something approaching the right direction, but does not go nearly far enough.

The (Unix) command-line points the way: the idea of the OS as a programming and data analysis environment above all else; the ability to perform complex tasks by streaming data from one small program to another; the use of the keyboard as the primary user input mechanism. (Mice are an ergonomic disaster zone).

From WIMP graphical user interfaces, we should prioritize menus above all else. Menus help the motivated novice to discover tools and functionality in a way that the command line simply cannot. In today's time-constrained world, RTFM is a condescending cop-out. Nobody has the time. Discoverability is everything; the requirement for arcane knowledge (and the time required to achieve it) is both obsolescent and wasteful.

Windows, Icons and Pointers are secondary considerations - The command line and menus should take priority. They could (and arguably should) still exist; but they do not have to dominate the interaction paradigm in the way that they have done in the past, and should be there to support other functionality, not to provide a framework within which other functionality must fit.

Speaking of paradigms; the "desktop metaphor" that is so baked in to the conventional user interface -- it is a redundant piece of skeuomorphism that has outlived it's usefulness. Sure, we can keep the notion of "depth", and layer things over the top of one another in the UI, but the flat, 2D relationships between items - connectedness, proximity, above/below, left/right -- these notions need to take priority and need to be given consistent semantic meanings in the "pattern language" that defines the UI that we create.

What does this all mean in practice?

Well, how about this: A primarily command-line driven interface, but with embedded widgets and graphics. I.e. emphatically NOT a tty - or anything resembling one. Something somewhat akin to tmux can act as a "window manager" - although it would have to be tmux on steroids. The edges and corners of the screen; key pieces of real estate all; should harbour hierarchical menus galore: some static, always where you expect them, some dynamic, perhaps responding to a search, perhaps responding to recently run applications.

Above all else, applications need to work together. Textual commands help us to quickly and easily glue functionality together, pipes help us to move data around the systems that we build, and the graphical capabilities of our user interface allows us to diagram and explore the data-flow of our scripts and systems.