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This is a classic USENET post by Tom Christiansen on GUIs, which I'm reproducing on my own site because I got sick of links to it elsewhere dying on me.


Newsgroups: comp.unix.misc,alt.religion.computers,comp.windows.misc,comp.wind
ows.news,comp.windows.x,comp.human-factors,comp.windows.open-look,comp.windows.
x.motif
Path: convex!tchrist
From: Tom Christiansen <tchrist@convex.COM>
Subject: GUIs Considered Harmful
Message-Id: <1992Aug19.192513.28287@news.eng.convex.com>
Date: Wed, 19 Aug 1992 19:25:13 GMT
Reply-To: tchrist@convex.COM (Tom Christiansen)
Organization: Convex Computer Corporation, Colorado Springs, CO
Followup-To: alt.religion.computers

[Despite the broad initial coverage here, please note the Followup-To:
 line, which is meant only as a guideline, not a command; amend the
 newsgroups line as you see fit.]

                     GUIs Considered Harmful

I am increasingly troubled by how many new applications are designed to
work solely under a GUI.  While this may make some amount of sense for
people coming from the PC or Mac worlds, one of the strengths of Unix
has always been the ability to use it from anywhere.  These people
don't seem to understand this.

Of how much ultimate utility is that nifty new spreadsheet, editor, or
debugger if I can't dialup from the field and run it on my vt100?  Too
often a tool that "does windows" is little more than a marketing
gimmick to dazzle impressionable users into not noticing that they
don't have the real functionality they need.

GUI-minded programs seldom lend themselves to being used as components
in larger tools.  As such, they do not fit well into the UNIX
tool-and-filter philosophy.  Instead of each being a single program
that modestly attempts to do one thing well, they are a throwback to
the Bad Old Days when each program was a standalone, monolithic monster
that didn't interface with anything else.

It's all well and good to place a GUI wrapper around an existing tool,
but to design a new application with only a GUI interface in mind is to
forever limit that tool's flexibility.  After all, how to you write a
shell script that drives an automated xrn session?

Providing programmability for the fancy graphics software remains an
open problem.  The most effective use of GUIs in UNIX environments is
to design the nitty-gritty computational function as a "back end" that
can be driven either manually or automatically.  

The GUI wrapper should be a separable module.  If they're plug-replaceable, 
the application isn't irretrievably wedded to any specific GUI technology, 
such as SunView, NeWS, or even X11 or its children, like Open Look or
Motif.  Sending standard commands down a pipe the way the STDWIN or wafe
packages behave is also a reasonable approach.

This means your program should be runnable both with and without the
GUI present, and accept input from a mouse or under programmed
control.  Preferably that means both a shell-level interface for
convenience and a C-level interface for efficiency; Perl programmers
could elect either method.  That way, naive users can use push-button
GUIs, blind users can use Braille terminals, and sophisticated users
can program solutions to intricate problems.

It has been noted that GUIs make simple things simple, and complex ones
impossible.  Certainly it is worthwhile to make simple things simple.
But too often software is geared to only one level of expertise.  That
which is novice-friendly is too frequently expert-hostile, and vice
versa.  Being needlessly forced to click the mouse over a menu will
slow down the expert user who is more comfortable with a keyboard
interface.  

Gratuitous distractions from the keyboard only slow down the experienced
user.  A precision pointing device that didn't require taking your hands
off the keyboard would help.  There are cases where only a GUI makes
sense, like a CAD system.  Being able to delineate a region or draw a
figure with a mouse is probably a reasonable use for it, but selection of
a range of possibilities isn't, at least not after you've become familiar
with the tool. 

—tom

--
    Tom Christiansen      tchrist@convex.com      convex!tchrist

              A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.


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