Every App Should Have a Power Bar

How the command palette gives users superpowers

A power bar in the presentation tool Pitch.

A new tool is quietly appearing in many new and old apps that makes it easier for users to get around and get things done quickly. It’s a supercharged search box that I’ve dubbed the “power bar” and is sometimes referred to as the “command palette.”

Similar to Apple’s Spotlight search on macOS, power bars are built into a specific app and generally summoned with a shortcut like CMD+K (or CMD+SHIFT+P) and then typing in what you’re trying to do. Unlike Spotlight, however, power bars allow you to complete actual tasks rather than simply finding files or navigating to other parts of the app.

Superhuman’s command palette.

In a tool like email client Superhuman, for example, the power bar allows you to do anything that could be done by clicking a button in the app—without lifting your hands off the keyboard. Hitting the keyboard shortcut from an email in Superhuman and typing “schedule,” hitting “Enter,” and typing “next week” is far faster than hunting and clicking around an interface to do the same task if you understand how to use it.

A well-designed power bar allows people to navigate an entire app without touching the mouse and doesn’t require an exact phrase match in order to find the task. Searching for “snooze” or “later” instead of “schedule” should surface the same results because people use different words for the same task, particularly when they’re new to a tool. Most critically, virtually every task that can be performed in an app must show up in a power bar’s results to ensure it can be trusted to get anywhere, not just in a handful of cases.

Visual Studio Code’s power bar.

Power bars are beginning to appear a lot more frequently in all kinds of apps over the last few years. I’ve found them in the slideshow tool Pitch, a calendar app called Cron, more complex tools like Visual Studio Code, issue tracker Linear, and even in Adobe Photoshop as well as an array of other places. I have a hunch they’re appearing everywhere now because we’re in a moment where the vast majority of people are now comfortable asking voice assistants open-ended questions like “What’s the weather” to do things, and power bars offer a similar analog within individual apps.

The power bar isn’t technically a new concept. As Matthew Guay at Capiche wrote, “It took little under a decade for the headline feature developer Jon Skinner added to Sublime Text’s second version to become one of the defining features of this decade’s software.”

Calendar app Cron uses a power bar.

Essentially, it started its life as a tool optimized for power users like engineers who don’t want to take their hands off the keyboard, but they’re beginning to appear everywhere because they offer an opportunity to get people to the thing they’re doing faster without hunting through documentation or doing a Google Search. More importantly, they offer a way to find a shortcut or discover a feature that they don’t know exists just by typing.

What excites me about power bars as a more common UX pattern is that they can help transform people into “power users” who know how to harness more advanced features of an app far faster than if they were forced to figure it out for themselves. They can also help avoid dead-ends for people who might get stuck easily; if you’ve looked everywhere in the user interface, the power bar can help you find it with a simple search.

As we build and design apps that grow increasingly complex, one of the most difficult challenges is helping people discover powerful features they might not know about. These are the kind of things hidden behind menus, cryptic icons, or buried in junk drawers behind a “…” button. If you don’t know where the thing you’re trying to do is, you can just hit CMD+K and type it out rather than click around endlessly.

A well-designed power bar can help find the right tool even if the words don’t match exactly, helping the person discover what they’re looking for anyway and ultimately teaching them the direct shortcut key to get to that task in the future, too.

Introducing people to what power bars are capable of can be a challenge, however. An empty search box can be daunting, especially when you don’t realize that it’s possible to do more than just find things with it — apps that do use power bars need to teach their users what they’re capable of. New users to Superhuman and Cron, for example, are onboarded on a Zoom call to get them comfortable with the concept rather than just throwing them in the deep end.

But once people understand the tool, they’re away flying and likely will look for power bars in every tool—coming to expect them as a standard pattern.

As more people become comfortable with power bars and expect to be able to just type in what they’re trying to achieve, the way we build and design tools will transform. Instead of trying to cram as many icons and menus onto a page to help people get stuff done, apps can focus on the most important tasks and instead teach people to use the power bar to get to where they need to be faster.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify. https://twitter.com/ow

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