The everyday hero of attention data

This story is about something that most of us use on a daily basis and have come to take for granted: Autocomplete. Autocomplete is the younger and cuter version of command line completion, which started life as a tool for speeding up the shell in the Berkeley Timesharing system. Command line completion, now in a improved and less aggressive version, then found its way into Tenex operating system, and was later adopted for use in the Unix systems that are widespread today.

Autocomplete as we know it today eventually found its way to almost anyone who uses a computer by appearing in web browsers, email clients and the shell of Microsoft Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

What’s interesting about autocomplete is that by trying to solve the problem of effectively getting valid input from the user, it became one of the first examples of using attention data to help the user. Unlike command line completion, bound by system commands and the file system, autocomplete evolved into something that would model and reflect the user instead. Autocomplete essentially became the most personal part of the software we use everyday. It’s there for us as we type the address of a website we like and when we sit down to write an email to someone we know.

Let’s look at some of the advantages that autocomplete brings to the table:

  • It helps us to easily and quickly input values that adhere to the format expected by the system, thereby reducing the rate of errors
  • It’s a powerful yet user friendly solution that is easy to learn and master
  • It’s there when we need it and doesn’t bother us when we don’t
  • It presents us with contextually relevant information
  • It allows us to use recognition instead of recall by means of suggestions
  • No additional effort is required by the user - just do what you normally do and autocomplete works

The last point in particular speaks to users. I recently asked a friend about his experience with autocomplete and bookmarks, to which he responded:

“I gave up on bookmarks a while ago. They’re too much work, so I rely on autocomplete to quickly find pages and sites I’ve seen before.”

The increased focus on better and more user friendly URLs has also made autocomplete even more useful. For example, I can query firefox about which tags I recently clicked on this blog by writing “”:

Still, there’s a lot of room for improvements. Prefix matches is not always what the user is after, so we need to add an option to the autocomplete window that enables substring matches. This allows users to bring up a page no matter which part of the URL they remember. Next, add support for sorting, easier deletion and a choice of additional columns to the mix.

Now, that’s the kind of autocomplete I want for Christmas, but new features or not, I still love autocomplete as we know it. What about you?


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