posted by Richard Wareham on Mon 8th Mar 2004 20:49 UTC
IconThis essay describes the surprising results of a brief trial with a group of new computer users about the relative ease of the command line interface versus the GUIs now omnipresent in computer interfaces. It comes from practical experience I have of teaching computing to complete beginners or newbies as computer power-users often term them.

Around 2001 I spent some time working part-time at a local adult-education centre teaching CLAIT, a beginners computing course, to a wide variety of people. These were complete beginners; many had never turned on a machine before. It was as much an education to myself as it was to them.

The key thing to remember about these newbies that I taught is that they were not in any way stupid or slow. Many of them had mastered complex technical jobs and excelled in their chosen field. All these people felt that they were being left behind by IT and that there was some percieved intellectual barrier to entering the computer-enhanced world. This initial assumption on their part is key to the following discussion. These people are technophobic both in that they fear being left behind by the rapid advance of technology and that they fear the technology itself. The former fear is best addressed at the social level but the latter fear may have some justification based on their mental model of the world.

This essay describes some of the observations I made when giving some of the more advanced members tow brief session with a Linux session over SSH. A PuTTY window was made full screen and the users told that the computer was "now running in discussion mode". No mention of alternate operating systems was made until the end of the trial. The users were given a brief talk at the beginning of each session and a 'cheat-sheet' of common commands. The advanced users were encouraged to work with each other while I spent time with the rest of the class.

A day in the life of Aunt Tillie

Human beings are simply not brought up to deal with the GUIs of modern day computing systems. Consider the level of training that used to be involved with teaching one worker how to correctly interpret and operate a single control panel on some machine. To master modern GUIs, one must recall the operation, layout and relation to each other of hundreds, if not thousands, of such panels. The hardest skill being recalling or discovering the correct sequence of operations on one control panel to access a control panel relating to a desired operation.

Compare this to modern day life. Such nested control panels are rare and single ones at least are uncommon (one example being ATMs). Instead, to discover the appropriate interface metaphor, we should consider one day in the life of the subject of many of Eric S. Raymond's famous thought experiments, Aunt Tillie.

Aunt Tillie has spent all her life coping quite well without computers. She has, no doubt, had a high-flying intellectual job and now in her twilight years she has moved into retirement. Aunt Tillie is not stupid. She is perfectly capable of dealing with people, places and things that arise in her life.

A typical day for Aunt Tillie involves getting up, walking downstairs and checking for any post that may have been delivered. To do this she simply walks to the wicker box hanging under a slot in her door and opens it. She sees two envelopes and takes them to the breakfast table in the kitchen.

Being a typical English lady, she likes to start the day with a refreshing cuppa. Putting on the kettle to boil she sits down and opens the envelopes one-by-one reading the contents of each letter before opening the next. One is a letter from her nephew Eric letting her know that all is well in America and that he is enjoying himself. Aunt Tillie places the letter on the side-table to remind her to write a reply later in the day. The second is some circular advertising some credit card Aunt Tillie neither wants, nor needs. She opts to throw it in the bin.

By this point she realises that the kettle has boiled by the little click it made as it turned itself off. She goes to it and makes a nice cup of tea. Once she has finished her breakfast, Aunt Tillie sets off to do some shopping. Tillie always goes to the little corner grocer because she likes being able to talk about what products are on special offer and what she wants with the grocer. The conversations are usually restricted to fruit and veg but Tillie feels less intimidated talking to the grocer than having to go to the supermarket out of town and try to choose her shopping from the thousands of products on offer.

Once she has finished shopping she goes home and unpacks. She sees the letter from Eric in the kitchen and is reminded to write him a note. She does so and pops it next to the letter box in the hall to remind her to take it out to the post box tomorrow.

Features of Tillie's mental model of the world

This is a natural day for most people and everyone is confident of how things in real life like letter boxes, kettles and grocers work. Let us try to extract some of the features about Tillie's life that make her comfortable and attempt to match them to some user interface for a computer system. Firstly, Tillie doesn't do more than one thing at a time. Certainly she 'multitasks', putting the kettle on while reading mail for example, but her attention is focused in one place at any one time. The indication to Tillie that the kettle has boiled is unobtrusive and effective but she defers dealing with it until after she has read her letters.

Another feature of Tillie's life is known locations for known things. Letters have a certain place when they should be replied to and when they should be sent. Tillie does these things at different times during the day.

Finally we notice the importance of dialogue in her life, both implicit and explicit. Tillie has an implicit dialogue with the letter box, opening and looking for letters is equivalent to asking the box 'Have you any letters' and it replying, in this case, 'Yes, two'. Tillie has explicit dialogue with the grocer while retrieving information about today's products. Tillie's life is rarely control panel driven. We don't see Tillie ticking items on a list of products in the grocers and giving it to the grocer. We don't see Tillie having to locate the open door button, navigate to the destination panel in her garden and remembering if she has to type 'grocers' or 'grocer' to get to the right place.

Throughout the entire day there is an implicit element of discoverability, be it road signs at the appropriate places, notices placed prominently or things in expected or known places. This feature of day-to-day life is often one we overlook but it becomes painfully clear when we are placed in an environment which is not readily discoverable, such as a foreign country with unreadable notices and signs, or one which is unexpected, again a different culture provides different norms of behaviour to which we are not used. One could consider a newbie a tourist in the land of the computer. We must remember the neither know the language or the culture.

Table of contents
  1. "Command Line is your friend, Page 1/4"
  2. "Command Line is your friend, Page 2/4"
  3. "Command Line is your friend, Page 3/4"
  4. "Command Line is your friend, Page 4/4"
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