The History of Command Palettes: How Typing Commands Became The Norm Again

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Examine how command palettes regained popularity in modern UI design. A journey from past to present.

Vendr | The History of Command Palettes: How Typing Commands Became The Norm Again
Written by
Austin Petersmith
Published on
April 12, 2023
Read Time

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One of the most remarkable trends in contemporary business software is the resurgence of typing commands to interact with applications. This method of interface design, often referred to as a "Command Palette," empowers users to instruct apps precisely on what they want to do.

From Terminal to GUI to Search Again

This journey back to typing commands has been an interesting evolution in the realm of software interfaces. It all began with the advent of personal computing when early computers, such as the Apple machines and PCs, greeted users with a command prompt�something as simple as `C:\>_` waiting for your input.

Commands like `dir` for browsing files or `type` for viewing text files were the norm. While this approach had its advantages in terms of direct control, it was also prone to user errors, especially when accidentally entering commands like `format` or `rm -rf` in Unix.

As personal computing evolved, graphical user interfaces (GUIs) emerged, introducing icons like floppy disks and trash cans, making computers more approachable. The goal was to minimize the risk of users inadvertently damaging the system.

However, GUIs brought with them complex menus and toolbars, often leaving users feeling lost among an array of unlabeled buttons. The fear of clicking the wrong button�akin to triggering a bomb�was a real concern. While the GUIs were visually appealing, they could be daunting and frustrating for users who wanted a faster way to interact with their computers.

Even a decade after their introduction, personal computers were still seen as "too hard to use," leaving users yearning for a more efficient and user-friendly experience.

When Search Started Working

Amid the complexity of GUIs and the frustration of finding files on your desktop, there was a glimmer of hope in the form of search. Google demonstrated that it could locate anything on the web faster than users could find stuff on their own computers. This led to the idea of instructing your computer using natural language.

In 2004, Google brought this concept to the desktop with a tool that allowed users to search both the web and their computer for files and programs using just a few keystrokes. Suddenly, typing became a stylish and efficient way to interact with your computer, reminiscent of the command line but more accessible.

Suddenly Search Was Everywhere

The year 2007 was a turning point for search in software interfaces. Excel introduced Formula AutoComplete, Visual Studio incorporated file search that doubled as a command prompt, and Apple enhanced its search capabilities with the introduction of Help Menu Search in OS X Leopard.

With these innovations, search became an integral part of the user experience, making it easier to find hidden features within software applications. Buttons and menu items now had real words describing their functions, making everything more discoverable. Users no longer had to decipher cryptic commands like `dir`; instead, they could search for the tool they needed using natural language.

Taking Shortcuts

While search was a significant improvement, keyboard shortcuts remained a faster way to navigate and control digital technology, particularly for experienced users. However, these shortcuts often felt like secret codes known only to a select few, making them challenging for novice users to learn.

The challenge was in making keyboard shortcuts more accessible and discoverable for everyone.

Enter the Command Palette

The introduction of the command palette, as exemplified by Sublime Text, bridged the gap between keyboard shortcuts and natural language commands. It provided a simple and elegant solution�users no longer needed to learn specific key combinations or commands. Instead, they could type what they wanted, and the command palette would intelligently find and execute the desired action.

The command palette typically comprises three essential elements: a single shortcut to invoke the palette, a fuzzy matcher to find commands, and a way to view direct shortcuts for future use.

Developers and software creators quickly recognized the benefits of the command palette. It made features easily accessible through keyboard input, improved discoverability through a standardized UI, and allowed users to find shortcuts effortlessly. This innovative interface design took the best of the terminal and graphical interfaces, combining them into a user-friendly, efficient solution.

Computers Without Screens

Today, the concept of command palettes has expanded into various software applications, becoming a standard feature in many of them. Tools like Photoshop, Microsoft Office, Notion, Nuclino, and Deepnote have all embraced the command palette as a means to simplify user interactions.

Furthermore, voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have essentially adopted the concept of the command palette, allowing users to perform tasks with voice commands, eliminating the need for a visual interface altogether.

As computers continue to evolve, the interface design landscape is changing. The command palette, with its ability to bridge the gap between traditional commands and natural language, represents a significant step in making computers more accessible and user-friendly. The future may involve less searching for tools and more telling computers exactly what we need, with the assurance that they will understand and execute our commands.

The history of command palettes is a testament to the pursuit of user-friendly interfaces in computing, ultimately leading us back to a more efficient and accessible way of interacting with technology.

Austin Petersmith
VP of Growth and Community
Austin is the Vice President of Growth & Community at Vendr. He works on new initiatives aimed at bringing our community together and creating efficiency and transparency in SaaS.

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