Evolving Tempo's Command Line

2009-02-05 19:00:00 -0500


When we set out to build Tempo time tracking, we knew it would be important get out of the user’s way when they need to entering time. The way we saw it, there were three problems:

  1. Staying productive while busy is challenging – we often change tasks (and therefore the client we are billing changes).
  2. It can be difficult to accurately remember how much time we spend on individually tasks.
  3. It can be a real work-flow interruption to load up a website and type information into a form.

That’s why we created Tempo’s command line text interface. For instance, I can simply type in what I am working on next, and Tempo will time me. When I need to change tasks I just type in what I’m working on next and the last timer stops:

doing a screenshare demo #bigcorp @support

Similarly I can log time via this command line, not just start timers:

3:00 re-worked DataModel #strip @iphone @development

But if you don’t already have Tempo loaded in a browser then starting things up to enter your time can be an interruption in the flow, a disturbance in the force. Thankfully, text entry can come from anywhere! So we created various alternate ways to quickly enter time with minimal impact:

This text syntax has been a big win for us and our customers. While we’ve seen a few services out there implementing similar features, we’re pretty much the only game in town that takes it this far.

We’ve found that when people first try Tempo, the convenience of the command line and all these points of entry go unseen for a little while. We have a core group of customers that love these features, but many folks who might use them don’t know they are there until we show them and explain how it works. Then a light bulb goes off and we’ve won some new fans.

Obviously, that means we’ve got some work to do on the UI. The good news is that the awesome team at nGen Works is working with us to help us improve the ease of use and aesthetics of the application.

Meanwhile we want to expand what Tempo’s command line is capable of, and we could use your input here. Many of our customers have been asking for new features and we’d like to add in some of our own. But to do this we need to make some changes.

First the initial commands themselves (log time and start a timer) don’t actually have a command! This isn’t such a problem when the command itself is easy to distinguish — the widget, the bookmarklet, the website itself all send in a specific piece of text to parse. Things get much trickier with e-mail, where the commands also have to work, and where we have to scan the message for the command.

E-mail comes with a lot of junk in it, especially e-mail from web-based services, or e-mails quoting other e-mails. There are lots of tricks to parsing out what you don’t want, but finding a start command like this is like trying to find a needle in a haystack:

I am doing stuff

Yup, that would be a valid start-timer command. Now, if you check our text-entry cheat sheet, you’ll see that I’m fudging things a little bit here. We do require a keyword for timers sent in by email – start. We are thinking about standardizing the use of keyword prefixes across text entry methods. For instance, this is our proposed syntax for timers:

start writing about the CLI #tempo @bloggingstop

And this is our proposed syntax for logging time directly:

log 1h did some stuff #tempo @developmentlog 1:30 …

Requiring a keyword at the beginning of every command would allow us to expand the syntax and add new features in the future like these:

stop 2h [ stop timer and add two hours ]stop -30m [ stop timer and take off 30 minutes ]start 1h … [ indicates I started an hour ago ]log start 3pm stop 4pm [ record 1 hour between 3 and 4 pm ]

We’re fairly sure this is where we want to take it, but we’d love to get some feedback. Let us know what you think.


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