Beyond keyboard shortcuts

In the age of touch devices, some days it seems like a day will come when we will not have to use a keyboard to interact with computers. A significant part of our relationship with technology passes through interfaces that were not common a decade ago: touch screens, accelerometers, cameras and microphones.

Keyboards, however, are still the most efficient way to interact with a computer, and not only for typing email. From code editors like Emacs to advanced image manipulation tools like Photoshop, it is no wonder that most advanced programs can be controlled more efficiently by means of keyboard shortcuts.

The learning curve for shortcuts is generally quite steep: while some of them are standard across programs and can be easily guessed, most shortcuts are complex abstract key combinations (as ⌘-Control-Shift-3 on Mac, that takes a screenshot to the clipboard) and therefore not easy to remember.

Some applications, however, are introducing smarter ways to control our computers using a keyboard.

Alfred: Mac at your fingertips

Mac OS has a long tradition of exposing keyboard shortcuts that allow power users to perform common tasks more efficiently. Introducing Spotlight was one more step towards keyboard driven interaction, as it allows to access applications, files and many other items by typing in a text box. Alfred, takes this approach to a new level: just like with Spotlight, pressing a combination of keys brings up a text box where you can enter anything from file names to simple commands (like empty trash, shutdown, and many more).

Alfred in action

The advantage over the built-in solution is that those commands allow you to control many functionalities that traditionally would have required you to click through several items and menus. Alfred will even adjust its behavior depending on the way you use it: it will present you first the options you select the most.

Sublime Text: controlling a text editor through text commands

When working with a text editor, typing on a keyboard is – by definition – the main means of interaction and so these programs traditionally rely on keyboard shortcuts more than any other. The over 2000 keyboard shortcuts available in Emacs are the most significant evidence of the level of complexity shortcuts can reach: it is impossible to master all the key sequences, only the most common ones.

Sublime Text, one of the best editors available today, takes an innovative approach to keyboard interaction: instead of requiring users to memorize arbitrary key sequences, it offers a mode called Command Palette, that allows users to type the name of any command to launch it.

Sublime Text’s command palette

Compared to having to learn or remember keyboard shortcuts, this approach saves users also the need to sift through the application menus to find the feature they are looking for. As a side effect, it is also a much more effective way to discover application features than reading a manual.

Ubuntu: using HUD to get past menus

If the previous mode of interaction is still an exception on Windows and Mac, Ubuntu took some bold steps towards that: they designed a new system called HUD (as in Head-Up Display).

It immediately offers users the same benefit as Sublime Text’s command palette: faster interaction with menus items and easier discovery of features. In addition to that, however, it shares with Alfred its adaptive behavior and will learn by user behavior.

While HUD is ultimately designed with voice control in mind, keyboard commands are still extremely efficient and already effective today.

You can see it in action in the following video.

Embedding features like these in the operating system (or, more precisely, in the desktop shell) means that we will be able to control any application in a faster and more efficient way, regardless of whether its developers planned for that feature in advance or not.

Conclusion: why should I care?

Decades ago, keyboard shortcuts were born as a means to offer power users a more efficient way to perform their tasks. Nowadays, with fast access to command search (one or two keys) and smart algorithms to search through commands, anyone can become a power user in less time.

Not all applications will benefit dramatically from command search, but this pattern will become more and more common when web sites/applications start offering it: look at  Google Docs menu search and GitHub’s command bar.

Alessandro Bahgat
Software Engineer & Manager

I am an engineer and manager of engineers, I sometimes play with side projects and write about my experiences in my spare time.

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