Effective Suggest And Complete In An Eyes-Free Environment
1 Executive Summary
Emacs has always provided a wealth of techniques for rapid keyboard
input (abbrev, dabbrev, hippie-expandand completion come to mind)
alongside a rich collection of tools for navigating among open
buffers. And these affordances have significantly increased over the
last few years with the arrival of packages like
helm etc., each replete with different strategies for rapid task
completion such as flex and fuzzy matching. This article investigates
these tools in an eyes-free environment, specifically in the context
of Emacspeak and rapid task completion. I've not investigated every
possible package in this space — instead, I've picked a collection
of packages and techniques that have worked well in an eyes-free
context. Finally, the ultimate metric I use in each case is the time
to successful task completion — since at the end of the day, that's
the only metric that counts when it comes to user productivity.
For this article, I will use terms suggestion and completion to
mean subtly different concepts. I'll also use terms explore and
filter in describing various phases in user interaction.
- Offer the user some suggestions that help explore the space of choices. (metaphor: avoid the blank sheet of paper syndrome).
- Filter the available choices based on user input with the goal of reaching the target as rapidly as possible.
- User does not necessarily know what he is looking for, but expects to be able to recognize what he wants from the displayed choices.
- User knows exactly what he wants, e.g., filename, or function-name, but would still like to get there with the fewest possible number of keystrokes, along with the needed memory aids to guide the decision.
Note that in practice, suggestions and completions work
hand-in-hand, with the visual display playing a central role in
guiding the user through the pace of available choices. In a typical
user interaction session, the space of suggestions gets filtered by
user input to produce the available completions (choices) for the next
round of user input — think of this as a
Suggest/Input/Filter/Target (SIFT) interaction loop. Similarly, explore and
target type activities typically go hand-in-hand, with explore
serving as a memory-aid for locating the target.
3 Tasks Where Suggestions And Completions Help Speed Up Task Completion
Here are exemplars of tasks that I perform often and where I require
all the help that Emacs can provide in completing the task as rapidly
- File Navigation
- Navigating to and opening a file — either code or prose.
- Content Navigation
- Jump to a specific location (section, function, class/method, or pattern-match) in that file.
- Buffer Navigation
- Jump to an already open buffer in a long-running Emacs.
If that buffer existed — but has since been killed (by
midnight for example), then re-open that buffer.
I do everything in Emacs, so open buffers include a large
number of ORG and LaTeX documents, Web Pages opened in EWW
(news sites, documentation, blog articles), IM Chats (I use
jabber), Mail Buffers — both open folders and previously
sent messages, and much, much more.
- Easily launch media streams including local and streaming media.
- Open (or jump to an already open) EBook to continue reading.
- Code Completion
- Complete function/method-name as I type, with an easy affordance to move among the available choices. The Suggest/Input/Filter/Target interaction loop applies here as well.
Notice that as one performs all of these tasks, every target is an
Emacs buffer or Emacs buffer location. In the case of completion, the
target is a string that gets inserted at the current location.
4 Features Of Eyes-Free Interaction
Using spoken output — as opposed to a rich visual display — has
the following special features and/or drawbacks:
- A large visual display can offer the user many choices at a time,
and the eye's ability to rapidly scan these choices makes for an
extremely fast Suggest/Input/Filter/Target loop. As an example, an
helmcan display a large number of initial
choices, with the user filtering these down with a few strategic key-presses.
- Spoken output takes time — and there is simply no way around
this — speeding up speech-rate helps to a point, but speaking
50 choices very fast does not help the user in the explore
phase. This means that effective filtering and ranking of the available
choices takes on added importance.
- More importantly, picking a Suggest/Input/Filter/Target (SIFT)
interaction loop that depends on a large display is sub-optimal
for eyes-free interaction.
- Given (2,3), smart filtering, flex/fuzzy matching, and ranking
based on past user behavior take on added importance in an
eyes-free environment. As an aside, I have high hopes in this
area for package
prescient— though in my few days of usage,
it has yet to make a difference in my productivity.
- For many of the tasks enumerated in the previous section, (2, 3
and 4) make
idowith flex and fuzzy matching extremely
effective. In contrast,
helmwith similar flex and fuzzy
matching (via packages
helm-fuzzier) adds little
extra benefit — and the fractional extra time to compute and
display the choices can even lead to a minor productivity hit.
- When it comes to writing code with completion, package
has proven extremely effective. Notice that when writing code,
one rarely if ever resorts to fuzzy matching — this may well
be subjective. Speaking for myself, I cannot think of function
or method names in the context of fuzzy matching — said
differently, it's hard to think
next-line— even though in a given filtering context,
might define the shortest path through the available choices to
next-line. Given this, emacspeak implements a
company front-endthat allows the user to navigate through the
available choices with succinct spoken feedback, and I use those
choices only after I have typed sufficiently many characters to
have a manageable number of choices — said differently, though
companyis set up to trigger after 3 characters have
been typed, I usually end up typing more — and often resort to
hippee-expandto input this longer prefix.
- Some of the shortcomings with eyes-free interaction enumerated
above lead to my looking for effective work-arounds that might
well work well outside the eyes-free context, e.g. when the
available choices are too large to fit on a typical visual
display. Interestingly, most of these have also been solved by
mainstream Emacs developers in their never-ending/unerring quest for increased
productivity — package
companyare excellent exemplars.
- Mapping Solutions To Tasks
This section maps the various solutions I use to speed up the tasks
enumerated earlier in this article.
4.1 File And Buffer Navigation
I use package
ido with add-ons
ido-ubiquitous) as my primary/only solution for this
task. I've dabbled with package
helm — primarily via command
helm-mini but have found almost no use-cases where I did better with
helm. I also use command
org-switchb to quickly jump to any of my
org buffers – since that automatically filters the choices
down for me — I can then get to the
org-mode buffer I want with
one or two keystrokes. Notice that in all of these cases, I'm relying
on the fact that I mostly know what I want, i.e., the explore phase
does not start with an entirely blank sheet of paper.
4.2 Content Navigation
Incremental search is your biggest and most effective friend in
effective eyes-free interaction — this simply cannot be stressed
enough. That everything in Emacs is searchable via
incremental-search is a big win for eyes-free interaction. When you
have a large visual display, the human eye is the search interface of
first resort – you typically use a search-command only if the
target is below the fold or far away from the cursor. Because spoken
output takes time, I use isearch even when the target is one or two
Structured navigation comes next in my toolbox for navigating content
imenu for code, and section navigation for documents (org,
LaTeX). I also use command
occur to advantage since that provides a
quick way of finding all the desired targets in a document. Given that
program source-code uses indentation for displaying structure,
selective-display remains one of Emacs' hidden
treasures with respect to expanding/collapsing source-code.
use a combination of
structured navigation in
org-mode buffres by collapsing the document, and then using
isearch to reveal the desired content fragment.
In the case of
LaTeX documents, I use package
generate a navigation buffer that functions as an interactive table
4.3 Locating And Playing Media
- I keep all my music content organized under
- I keep playlist files that contain stream-links to my favorite
Internet streams under
- The afore-mentioned techniques using
idoenables me to launch
local and streaming media with a small number of keystrokes. Once
selected, the content is played via package
which provides Emacs bindings to all
via that program's
slave-mode. In addition, Emacspeak also
implements a smart
Emacs' integration with command
locateto turn the located
files matching a given pattern into an interactive play-list.
Jumping to already open ebooks is no different than buffer
navigation. I organize all my ebooks under a single directory
tree, and module
emacspeak-epub implements a bookshelf that
allows me to organize and browse my collection along various
axies. Finally, Emacspeak implements a light-weight bookmark
facility that works with
eww so that I can save my place in an
ebook across Emacs sessions.
4.5 Code Completion
As covered earlier, I use
company along with
hippee-expand while writing code. I also use
generate skeleton code. I use
automatically correct repeated errors, and add abbrevs for
commonly occurring typos.
- Emacs' Suggest/Input/Filter/Target (SIFT) interaction loop is just as
effective in eyes-free interaction — in fact more so .
- Fuzzy matching when filtering is a big win when working with spoken
output — it leads to faster task completion.
- Navigating ones computing environment based on the underlying
structure and semantics of electronic content is a major win —
both when working with a visual or spoken display. The advantages
just become evident far sooner in the eyes-free context due to the
inherently temporal nature of spoken interaction.
Date: 2018-06-22 Fri 00:00
Created: 2018-06-23 Sat 17:22