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.

0 thoughts on “Command lines: Back to the future?

  1. In this vein, there’s the phenomenal YubNub ( ), which bills itself as “a (social) command line for the web.” It allows any user to define new commands based on a very simple syntax (I can easily do it, and I can barely code in any language). Most commands are searches of popular sites – “wp Photoshop” would go to the Wikipedia page for Photoshop, and “gim Photoshop” would search Google Images for Photoshop. It’s strength comes in its flexibility – check out “gima”, a command I created, which can search Google Images and specify image size, image type, source location, etc. Even better, it’s usually pretty easy to integrate YubNub into your browser’s search or address bar ( ) – so whenever I’m looking for a font, I just type “myfonts” and then the font name into my address bar and away I go. I can’t recommend it highly enough – just like InDesign’s Quick Apply, it greatly speeds up my workflow.
    [Wow–sounds pretty cool; I’ll check it out. Thanks for the tip. –J.]

  2. There are lots of great posts on Lifehacker about using the command line…
    I’ve really been trying this year to use the keyboard more and the mouse less – I’m really enjoying AutoHotKey – I have lots of things automated for simple keystrokes.

  3. Back in the early days of AutoCAD, I could rock and roll by typing in the command line with my left hand and “picking” with the mouse using my right. You could even create custom menu files and advanced macros using LISP that could be executed with quick keystrokes. In a fast-paced production environment, the ability to draw in this manner was invaluable.
    [I’ve heard good things about AutoCAD in this regard. –J.]

  4. John, I can email you my QuickSilver configuration, if it helps. I’ve set option-spacebar to bring up all the menu items of the front-most app. For instance, in Photoshop I can get to the unsharp mask by typing “uns” and hitting return.
    [Cool–I’d like to get that, Rich. I know this stuff can’t be rocket science, but there are just so many knobs and switches to flip in QS that I lose patience/interest. –Thanks, J.]

  5. Somehow, this post made me think of Scotty in Star Trek: The Voyage Home picking up a mouse and trying to give verbal commands to a computer. The complexity of the GUIs in many applications can be quite daunting, and the challenge of simplifying yet maintaining the specificity and power of the human/computer interface will be tying up a lot of developer time and cpu cycles so that we can move past the limits of the mouse and the menu system.
    [Yeah, you ain’t kiddin’… –J.]

  6. Hey Rich,
    I am a big QS fan – been using for quite a while (few years?). That sounds like a great idea – put me down for that QS configuration email, please!

  7. I have a customer that still does all of their typesetting using code…much like the old CompuGraphic or Verityper technology. And it’s fast. The rub is that it takes six months to train new employees to use the old code.
    It’s a lot faster for them to type in 235 for a piece of art and 001 for Helvetica than to draw boxes or mess with menus.
    To bring them into this century, I am helping them build a new system around InDesign Server, but in addition to a more modern interface, it will have the ability to type in that same old code for fast production.
    I guess it’s true that if you wait long enough things will come back into fashion. Maybe that means that my orange Ford Pinto will once again be a babe magnet…if it ever was.

  8. You mentioned Quicksilver’s death by options. Directory Opus is a bit like that. It a File Manager that makes Explorer and Finder look a bit pathetic. It’s very powerful, but the amount of options you have if you want to tweak programme and it’s interface is amazing. So very like when using PS for first time, possibly a bit bewildering. Sadly not available for the Mac. I notice some of Leopards ‘new’ feaures have been in Opus for a while.

  9. Sorry to reply to such an old post but I found this while looking to see if Photoshop takes command line params (seems not) and I was just struck so much by that AutoCAD comment!
    I was never a power user but in the days of Release 11 I used to use it and being able to just draw a couple of lines with a mouse then TYPE a command to clip or join them was fantastic. I wonder if AutoCAD still exists and if it can still do that? I stopped using it when the first Windows version was on the horizon and hated that.

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