March 29, 2007

Command Line vs. Graphical User Interfaces
(or "Do you know what you want, or would you like the soup of the day?")

A recent poster to a usability email list pointed out that command line interfaces can be more efficient than GUIs once they are learned. He had even found a web site that offers a command line for web browsing.

This brought to my mind a few analogies that I'd like to share here:

Command Line (CLUI) like ordering a meal from a short order cook, when you know what they can serve, how they can prepare it, and exactly how to order it.

For example:
"Hey, Mac, give me a Pope Benedict and Sweet Alice with mystery in the
alley, on wheels"
(To decode this, see

Graphical User Interface (GUI) like having a menu (opportunistic pun) and a waiter who tells you what the specials of the day are. Of course, half of the time, after you order they tell you that they're out of that.

GUI "Specials of the Day" today:
1. "Do you know you have unused icons on the desktop?" and

2. "Microsoft Update, Adobe Updates, Google Updater, and Installshield Updater all have updates for you to download and install...Mr. 'I have nothing else to do but keep my software updated'...oh, and did I mention that your two anti-virus and three spyware apps all need updates? The next time you visit, maybe I can interest you in upgrading your firewall to something other than that free version that came with your computer."

The GUI Fast Food Server: Mr. Wizard
" you're ordering the #2. Would you like fries with that? Are you sure? Please read this Fries 2.0 license agreement and select 'I Agree' before continuing. Great. Where would you like me to put the fries? Installing potatoes...Oops, sorry, there's not enough space left on your plate."

Additional Resources:
- Don Norman Essay: UI Breakthrough-Command Line Interfaces
- Command Line Interfaces
- Scott Isensee: Revival of the Command Line?


Chris Martin said...

A textbook I used referred to this concept as virtuosity and pointed out the difference between a piano and one violin. Correct intonation is difficult for violin beginners, but violin experts can do feats that are impossible on the piano.

Anonymous said...

I’m sure that those who are familiar with command line interfaces enjoy their use of code and syntax that appears so strange and complicated to the rest of us. I feel a slight mix of awe and confusion anytime I hear successful communication in short-order-cook-jargon, too. But for the average user, the applications used on the computer are so much more important than the operating system it is running on. It wasn’t until GUI made the personal computer more usable to me and the Average Joe that computers became so omnipresent. Those nearly-intuitive graphical interfaces allow more people to do more things on computers, and that can’t be all bad. GUIs might get a little pushy and full of themselves sometimes. But if it allows me to be productive on the computer without having to learn a whole new communication system, I can deal with a little over-protective clunkiness.