I have recently become more comfortable with the command line, but for a long time felt like that blinking cursor was telling me “you. remember. nothing. you. remember. nothing.”
I have a visual memory. I can picture a drawing of the water cycle from my fifth grade text book, and I remember that the drawing was on the left side of the page. The command line makes poor use of a visual memory (though setting up the bash shell with some colors can help), and I thought perhaps we could do better.
Ages ago, 2010ish in fact, I imagined a solution, which I called the magical command line. I pictured a series of in-context drop-downs that could guide someone who was less comfortable with this mode of interacting with the computer. For example, when a user typed
gi the drop down might suggest git, gitk, git-duet, or any number of other commands beginning with the letters gi.
I also wanted a command line that would auto suggest things that could be found in help documentation (without me needing to type –help again and again). As the user finished typing
git and then added a trailing space, the suggestions would auto-update to match the new set of constraints, and only subcommands of
git would be suggested.
So, when I type
git m, the magical command line would in a context sensitive way, realize that I’m typing a subcommand of git and auto-populate the drop-down with subcommands that begin with the letter m. Notice how the icons and colors change to let the user know they are dealing with a primary or subcommand.
As I select the second option
git mv the magical command line now populates the drop-down with two file-picker triggers for both the source and destination file. Different iconography distinguishes the file picker from the regular command/subcommand suggestions.
When I choose source, it opens an OS specific file picker.
Is this still a good idea four years later? I don’t know. I think it would still help beginners and those with visual memories like mine get comfortable with the command line faster. Maybe in the intervening years something like this has already been created? If so, I’d love to hear about it. What do you think? How does your memory work best? Would this tool help you?
Note: Obviously the interaction is heavily inspired by my use of adobe products. I even proposed this to Adobe years ago because I thought it would be a great bridge-tool for designers on the nerdier end of the spectrum, but the PM just smiled and nodded. Maybe it’s actually a dumb idea? I thought I’d put it out there before I nuke this buggy laptop and possibly lose the designs forever.
Photo Credit: Carlos Rios