Saturday, April 26, 2014

From punch cards to CLUI to GUI to EEUI (Easter-egg user interface)

In the batch processing days, we punched operating system commands into IBM cards. When we moved on to time-sharing, we began typing commands on terminals and later on PCs -- the command-line user interface (CLUI).

While we were memorizing and typing commands, researchers at Xerox PARC were refining the work of people like Ivan Sutherland and Doug Engelbart and developing the modern graphical user interface (GUI).

We could not write GUI scripts, but we flocked to them because they did not tax our memory -- you no longer had to remember a list of commands or type help or man for a reference sheet, you just clicked on a pull-down menu or right-clicked your mouse and saw your choices. Icons like trash cans also helped us see and remember our options and we could also click on clearly-labeled tabs and buttons.

Being lazy and impatient, I liked GUIs.

When touch screen phones and tablets came along with relatively small screens, the space used for menus, icons and buttons was limited so we added a new twist to the GUI -- we hid most of the icons, buttons and menus. The good news is that the screen is uncluttered, but the bad news is that we are back to memorizing commands. We either study tutorial material or we fool around to stumble upon then memorize commands -- the Easter-egg user interface (EEUI).

I understand the motivation for the EEUI, but it is more difficult to learn than a GUI and is not needed on a laptop or desktop with a relatively large display. (Jakob Nielsen describes this usability tradeoff in this post on GUI "chrome").

This was driven home to me the other day, when I went to create an application using Zoho's database service, Creator. I had not created an application for some time, and the user interface had been changed, providing an example of an EEUI.

This is a screen shot of the program's uncluttered dashboard:

When you roll the cursor over a region on the screen, a menu appears giving three choices -- view, edit or delete the current form.

If you move the cursor to the left, the menu choices remain on the screen, but the cursor icon turns to a small hand, indicating that clicking will execute a command. (It activates the form design menu).

Finally, we see a horizontal-line icon, which indicates another hidden menu. This one is hard to see, but perhaps three horizontal lines is becoming known as an icon signifying a drop down menu.

To end on a positive note, I will offer a UI solution for the easter-egg problem: provide a simple, consistent way -- a voice command or gesture on a system with no keyboard -- to toggle between a chrome-free display and one that reveals all easter-egg commands, mode changes and cursor hot zones, as shown below. (This is analogous to a global right-click in a GUI).

Toggle: Easter-egg display off

Toggle: Easter-egg display on