gitgot: Dialed in User Interfaces
I’ve been working on an alternate GitHub front end called gitgot. Some people may be wondering why this is a worthwhile project. Here’s an explanation.
People use GitHub a lot. I know I do. They use it for their work, for their open source projects, for school, for anything and everything. As a result, the GitHub user interface has to accomodate all of these different users. It has to work for the developer who is looking at a library’s repository in order to check whether it’s worth using, and it has to work for the maintainer of this library to handle all the issues and pull requests. The result is a UI that doesn’t work well for anybody. It’s dense, but not efficient. It’s a UI that requires a lot of clicking and extra typing.
In short, it’s not dialed in. For most developers that’s okay. A student doesn’t need a perfectly dialed in UI1. But for professional developers, indeed professional open source developers, they’re dealing with a firehose of issues and pull requests and discussion posts. Any maintainer of a popular open source project can tell you it’s a constant struggle to handle this onslaught. When you’re getting thousands of issues, any amount of time shaved off is a huge win. Here’s what I’m doing to shave off time:
- Keyboard first
This is not a new concept. We already interact with our editors and terminals primarily via key commands. And many web apps have started to become more keyboard friendly. Key commands are great! They build muscle memory in a way that using a mouse does not. They’re repeatable and aren’t limited to your visual processing speed. Indeed, GitHub does allow some key commands, including the Command Palette, a way to bring up a search interface for various commands. However, first, this is not very discoverable, and second, the key commands don’t encompass everything. There are still too many situations where I have to begrudgingly reach for my mouse.
- Both Shortcuts & Command Search
Within keyboards there should be two ways of navigating. The first is via a shortcut, i.e. a sequence of keys that you can press to trigger an action. The second is via command search, i.e. searching for commands via a Command Palette. This allows for extremely fast navigation with shortcuts, but also discoverability using command search. In an ideal world, the command search should also teach users the shortcuts, thereby making them more efficient.
- Simple, Specialized UI
GitHub has a UI that does everything a user may want to do. That may seem like a vacuous statement, but it’s actually not. Because there are so many different types of users, this results in a cluttered UI that does not favor anybody. Instead, we should make multiple UIs that each focus on a specific style of usage. For instance, there should be a UI for triaging issues. Or a really good UI for searching through issues for getting help. Or a UI for efficiently creating issues and assigning them.
The UI of my front end also explicitly omits certain features. I’m not going to include a UI for changing your profile picture, or for looking at what your friends are doing on GitHub. I want just the features that people use every day all day.
- URL Stores Unsaved State
The URL should store as much unsaved state as possible. In other words, if the state is not saved to the server, it should be saved in the URL. I’m a huge fan of this approach because it means you can share the state of the page simply by providing a URL. This is a huge win for code playgrounds and I could see a lot of possibilities for other web apps.
- Shorten Common Paths
Repositories have a lot of common patterns. For instance, there’s
often a guide to contributing to a repository in a CONTRIBUTING.md
file. I don’t see why this can’t be a keyboard shortcut away instead
of having to look through the list of files for
CONTRIBUTING.md. Likewise, people often want to search through issues
both open and closed to find information on a bug. Currently you have
to go to issues, then delete the
is:open predicate and
search. That’s way too slow. It should be trivial to enter a
repository and enter “bug searching mode”.
Why Not A Terminal?
Some people may ask why not use a terminal? And yeah, that is a solution for some aspects. But I do think some amount of user interface is useful. It’s hard to do simple stuff like grids in a terminal. It’s also hard to share terminals with other people. You can’t just send it to a coworker via a URL.
Besides, let’s not underrate browsers here. They offer built in page history, tabs, and an excellent ecosystem of UI libraries. And they’re portable!
If we must resort to the tired and true “X for Y” description, I’d say that gitgot is “emacs/vim for GitHub”. And indeed, I have modeled the keybindings off of vim to some degree. Others may say Superhuman which is also fair.
As of right now gitgot is very very alpha. I’m still working out the key commands and user flow, not to mention the UI. But I’m already pretty happy with it. There’s nothing more fun that using your keyboard. It just feels…right.
I’d love to know your thoughts on gitgot. Feel free to try it out at gitgot.io and email me at email@example.com.
That may be true, but I do think there’s opportunities to make a more student friendly GitHub UI. ↩︎