DOS ain’t so bad after all

~ 07 January 2008 ~

Is it possible the web interfaces we construct today are occasionally less efficient than DOS interfaces of yesteryear?

Because I often don a suit and tie, I dry clean items nearly every week. When I drop off clothing by drive-through, the clerk zips through customer and product data with incredible speed.

Last Friday I found myself purchasing a La-Z-Boy chair to accompany a sofa of the same style. The salesperson sprinted through inventory and delivery data with similar speed.

In both scenarios, the interfaces enabling these quick experiences are DOS-driven. No gradients, no Ajax, no mouse. Fitts’ Law isn’t even of concern. Just alphanumeric characters and keyboard strokes.

Admittedly, what should be understood is that both of these scenarios are point-of-sale transactions. The primary users are experienced employees who have been trained specifically to use these systems, which may often have steep learning curves.

What’s interesting, however, is that in both scenarios, there are secondary participants: me, the customer. For all intents and purposes, that makes me a secondary user; that is, I’m just as dependent upon the speed of the transaction (interface) as the primary user: the salesperson or clerk.

There’s a lingering temptation among those of us in the industry to replace all so-called “antiquated” means of doing things with newfangled web interfaces. And rightly so, given the many benefits the web provides. Yet, I cringe when I think about these two satisfactory DOS experiences being replaced with point-and-click web interfaces.

Please keep me a DOS secondary user for the foreseeable future, point-of-sale citizens.



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1   Jemaleddin ~ 07 January 2008

What often looks like DOS is actually much more high-tech. Sorta. L.L. Bean’s stores use dumb terminals running a 3270 emulator to talk to IBM mainframes, but present the familiar green on black interface. Many other stores are doing the same.

But I’d question whether these systems are actually faster - I’ve stood around while people tabbed all the way to the end of a long screen of info to get to the very last field when they could have been using a mouse much more efficiently. The system at Sears when I last bought a washer and dryer was horrible.

2   Hamish M ~ 07 January 2008

Ah, this is so true.

Even big stores like Best Buy have on old DOS-like terminal somewhere. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?

3   Duncan Philpott ~ 07 January 2008

QFT, it is most efficient for data input, to the extent that DOS like interfaces are ran on more modern computers for such ease of use.

4   Hugh ~ 07 January 2008

CLI is dead, long live CLI.

5   Marc ~ 07 January 2008

Totally agree! To this day you’ll find people asking about and looking for (n)curses-based alternatives (pretty much what you’re talking about) to traditional GUI software. Just google “ncurses based” and watch what comes up - Music on Console, CenterIM…sheesh.

Another example: On *nix systems, I gladly use htop over any GUI process manager available today. It’s always open in a terminal window.

The problem with all this is that soon enough you find yourself playing a Nethack clone and *liking* it. Weird feeling.

I think this is a sign that we’re becoming much more mature as consumers of user interfaces. That can only be a good thing.

Something about mentioning a La-Z-Boy and DOS in the same post is amusing, too.

6   Alex Young ~ 07 January 2008

Also, if it ain’t broke…

It’s interesting when modern interfaces take design cues from command-line interfaces. For example: YubNub, Enso and Quicksilver all keep something of the CLI spirit alive in a GUI interface.

7   Sam Felder ~ 07 January 2008

I used to scoff at these outdated systems until I started experiencing the results of “up-to-date” redesigns.

A growing number of companies are stripping out these old systems and instructing employees to visit their public website for find product information or availability. Its gotten so bad that the last time I called my health insurance company to find information about a specialist the customer service representative couldn’t help me because the public website was having trouble.

Just as NASA hangs on to old computing platforms for their proven reliability, companies should think long and hard before scrapping systems that work. The trend of integrating real-time inventory data across retail stores and .com - like at Best Buy - is exciting, but that integration doesn’t necessitate, as you point out, newfangled web interfaces. But if companies to need new interfaces, the least they can do is build useful tools that improve the customer experience and note just tried-and-true systems with their public website!

8   Carl ~ 07 January 2008

I think the issue of the learning curves and the efficiency of repetitive use is the most important point here.

My previous job was glorified data entry (“Coordinator, Data Integrity”). I was in charge of updating and creating records of alumni and donors for a reasonably large university. We used the SCT Banner system to run all of this stuff.

It was slow, arcane (7-letter names for each screen, oftentimes only 4 letters of which made any sense), and difficult to learn. But when it came to new record creation, I had the keystrokes memorized—so much so, that I would type so quickly that by the time the network-based application caught up, I had been done for 5 or 10 seconds.

Just because I was fast doesn’t mean it was a good system; your post recognizes that notion. Indeed, I’m not sure it was even more efficient than some of the Web-based forms I came up with for related processes, since I was able to distill the information therein quite significantly.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is similar to Jemaleddin’s post—while we can learn to be fast while working with a system, it’s oftentimes still true that the system sucks. We’ve just grown to live with it, warts and all.

9   Brendan Cullen ~ 07 January 2008

My first job out of college, I worked for a direct marketing company cleaning databases, doing mail merges, lead qualifying, etc.

It was all done in a DOS system, and aside from seeing the blue screen after work even when you closed your eyes, it was the fastest database program I’ve ever used.

Eventually a new person was hired on preaching the point-and-click-glory of Access. We (mostly) switched over, and compared to our little blue screen it was so laggy and bloated it about tripled the time it took to do even the simplest of things. Also, it NEVER froze up/crashed.

Toss my hat in with the “If it ain’t broke…” crowd

10   ML ~ 07 January 2008

Now that’s a “Man’s” chair you purchased there. Very nice. Only if I had the room at home.

11   Steven Hoober ~ 07 January 2008

Maybe I am just old, but I’ve actually used these old CLIs for legitimate work. I agree they are MUCH superior almost always for any repetitive work. Once you get the basic paradigm down, using CICS is a snap. I’ve actually sat down and entered data on one I’d never seen, five years after using it for real at another place, and it worked fine.

When I look at most data entry screens today, even aside from the lame websites mentioned above, I see lots of bad design, bad programming and bad user behavior from learning those bad designs. Tabbing thru every field to get to the bottom? Not likely (and you can go up, and you can tab really effing fast). OTOH, who is not tired of the Dr. office receptionist having to stop typing, grab the mouse, acquire the cursor, move to the next field, click, and then reacquire the kb… FOR EVERY SINGLE FIELD.

Overall, I do think something (the slower pace of development, a handful of good designers, who knows?) made the bulk of these systems perfectly usable and useful. Bad interfaces today are so common I celebrate the few good ones I see. Its boring to talk about how bad any particular checkout process, data entry method, gas pump or ATM is.

I also think that “CLI” is as wrong as “DOS,” and implies the wrong thing. I’d call them ascii or “text=based” interfaces, maybe. Lots of these support mouse, or are otherwise pseudo graphical. Anyone remember XTree? Back when I had my first PC (8088) I had a little menuing program. Came with it, and was of no name I can remember. I set it up as a series of trees, grouping and ordering apps by type and use. Hit [what I not would call] accesskeys to drill down and launch. Faster than typing, and no relation to mouse speeds.

12   Kevin ~ 07 January 2008

At my previous job, an independant book store, we used a pseudo-CLI. As a closed system, the vendor encouraged us to upgrade to their lastest version, which was of course graphical. One of my coworkers was a woman in her sixties who had learned the DOS system enough to use it, and when the store upgraded she constantly struggled with it. I can’t say why; as a young person, I’m very adaptable.

Now, doing web work, I use keyboard shortcuts to save a s much time a a CLI would.

13   Mark ~ 07 January 2008

I work with Java developers that run Linux and when you see someone that really knows what they are doing with the command line, it’s amazing. They can drill through their file system, edit a file with vi, fire off a deployment script and then restart their web service, all at blazing speeds and all without ever touching the mouse. In fact, the act of moving one hand back and forth from their keyboard to their mouse would slow them down.

However, the steep learning curve definitely applies here. I am a designer by trade but am no dummy when it comes to development. When I first started using the command line, the required precision led me to the practice of storing several commands in a text file so that I could copy/paste them when needed. Since I did not need to use it that often I would forget what I learned between uses. There is absolutely nothing intuitive about the command line so forgetting even one character in a short command led to failure.

Most of the Java developers I work with use a development environment called Eclipse which has a GUI (possibly even with gradients!) but also has an integrated command line. My point here is that the GUI’s point-and-click functionality has helped simplify some development tasks but, for the person with the right skill set, there are some tasks for which the sheer speed of the command line still makes it the best tool.

14   Roberto ~ 07 January 2008

For some reason I just remembered Wordstar.

15   pictish ~ 07 January 2008

awww, dos. it’s so cute and efficient.

16   Justin ~ 07 January 2008

For DOS based systems I think it really comes down to design and training. I have rarely seen a DOS based system that was easy to use without some training. At my job we have an old DOS like bug tracking system. The problem is that it has 30 some odd fields, so if I want to skip some fields and go down to the bottom I have to tab or arrow through every single one of them. It’s a headache.

Honestly I don’t see why a web based application can’t be better. If designed well, tabbing through fields should be doable without hardly any issues. Then to top it all off there is always the mouse.

If people have to be trained, maybe more people just need to be trained on how to use the keyboard in the web environment.

17   Barry Bloye ~ 08 January 2008

This makes me think of devices that unnecessarily force you to use clunky, proprietary software (inevitably Windows only) to manage files rather than just letting you use your computer OS.

I recently spent *5 hours* finding an efficient way to copy images to a Kodak digital picture frame for my fiancĂ©e’s Dad.

The included software updated itself to a version that wasn’t actually compatible with the frame, and as we couldn’t use Windows to bulk copy the images across, we had to copy them to a USB flash drive and *individually* select and copy them using the frame’s firmware. Ugh.

18   Shane Porter ~ 09 January 2008

I call them ‘travel agent screens’; horrible to look at it, but with proficiency, the UI provides the quickest method of getting things done, once the various shortcuts and quirks are learned.

The steep learning curve prohibits their use in web-based systems, of course, where the potential audience is far greater.

However, it’s interesting that these ‘DOS’ systems are the optimal solution for certain application areas.

Just don’t ask me to work on one!

19   Emmy ~ 09 January 2008

What a horrible memory - working on DOS systems, navigating with the tab key and memorizing every keyword to any screen in the system. What if the customer asked a question out of order from my screen? - Pure panic!

I’ve worked at three jobs with DOS systems that involved talking to customers and working on the computer simultaneously: a Sears call center, an insurance call center, and a state agency. No wonder I went into interaction design - DOS may look faster, but it becomes a headache for new employees who don’t know the system, customers who don’t ask questions in the right order, or trying to jump from step twenty back to step one - using keywords or tabbing through every data entry field to the navigation bar.

Hooray for a mouse!

20   Dave B ~ 10 January 2008

I recently took this photo in my local hardware store. The manager (in the photo) was doing the year end inventory by pushing an old computer running a DOS system. A hundred foot long extension cord and CAT5 cable connected it to the network.

21   Bryce ~ 10 January 2008

I completely agree here, I find just using the keyboard to enter data is a lot quicker then using a keyboard with both hands and then having to switch to a mouse to click something. Especially in high-volume environments.


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