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CLI guideline

Goals

Purpose of this document is to provide a clear direction to help design delightful command line experience. This document contain guidelines to follow to ensure a consistent and approachable user experience.

Overview

nix command provides a single entry to a number of sub-commands that help developers and system administrators in the life-cycle of a software project. We particularly need to pay special attention to help and assist new users of Nix.

Naming the COMMANDS

Words matter. Naming is an important part of the usability. Users will be interacting with Nix on a regular basis so we should name things for ease of understanding.

We recommend following the Principle of Least Astonishment. This means that you should never use acronyms or abbreviations unless they are commonly used in other tools (e.g. nix init). And if the command name is too long (> 10-12 characters) then shortening it makes sense (e.g. “prioritization” → “priority”).

Commands should follow a noun-verb dialogue. Although noun-verb formatting seems backwards from a speaking perspective (i.e. nix store copy vs. nix copy store) it allows us to organize commands the same way users think about completing an action (the group first, then the command).

Naming rules

Rules are there to guide you by limiting your options. But not everything can fit the rules all the time. In those cases document the exceptions in Appendix 1: Commands naming exceptions and provide reason. The rules want to force a Nix developer to look, not just at the command at hand, but also the command in a full context alongside other nix commands.

$ nix [<GROUP>] <COMMAND> [<ARGUMENTS>] [<OPTIONS>]
  • GROUP, COMMAND, ARGUMENTS and OPTIONS should be lowercase and in a singular form.
  • GROUP should be a NOUN.
  • COMMAND should be a VERB.
  • ARGUMENTS and OPTIONS are discussed in Input section.

Classification

Some commands are more important, some less. While we want all of our commands to be perfect we can only spend limited amount of time testing and improving them.

This classification tries to separate commands in 3 categories in terms of their importance in regards to the new users. Users who are likely to be impacted the most by bad user experience.

  • Main commands

Commands used for our main use cases and most likely used by new users. We expect attention to details, such as:

- Proper use of [colors](#colors), [emojis](#special-unicode-characters)
  and [aligning of text](#text-alignment).
- [Autocomplete](#shell-completion) of options.
- Show [next possible steps](#next-steps).
- Showing some [“tips”](#educate-the-user) when running logs running tasks
  (eg. building / downloading) in order to teach users interesting bits of
  Nix ecosystem.
- [Help pages](#help-is-essential) to be as good as we can write them
  pointing to external documentation and tutorials for more.

Examples of such commands: nix init, nix develop, nix build, nix run, ...

  • Infrequently used commands

From infrequently used commands we expect less attention to details, but still some:

- Proper use of [colors](#colors), [emojis](#special-unicode-characters)
  and [aligning of text](#text-alignment).
- [Autocomplete](#shell-completion) of options.

Examples of such commands: nix doctor, nix edit, nix eval, ...

  • Utility and scripting commands

Commands that expose certain internal functionality of nix, mostly used by other scripts.

- [Autocomplete](#shell-completion) of options.

Examples of such commands: nix store copy, nix hash base16, nix store ping, ...

Help is essential

Help should be built into your command line so that new users can gradually discover new features when they need them.

Looking for help

Since there is no standard way how user will look for help we rely on ways help is provided by commonly used tools. As a guide for this we took git and whenever in doubt look at it as a preferred direction.

The rules are:

  • Help is shown by using --help or help command (eg nix --``help or nix help).
  • For non-COMMANDs (eg. nix --``help and nix store --``help) we show a summary of most common use cases. Summary is presented on the STDOUT without any use of PAGER.
  • For COMMANDs (eg. nix init --``help or nix help init) we display the man page of that command. By default the PAGER is used (as in git).
  • At the end of either summary or man page there should be an URL pointing to an online version of more detailed documentation.
  • The structure of summaries and man pages should be the same as in git.

Anticipate where help is needed

Even better then requiring the user to search for help is to anticipate and predict when user might need it. Either because the lack of discoverability, typo in the input or simply taking the opportunity to teach the user of interesting - but less visible - details.

Shell completion

This type of help is most common and almost expected by users. We need to provide the best shell completion for bash, zsh and fish.

Completion needs to be context aware, this mean when a user types:

$ nix build n<TAB>

we need to display a list of flakes starting with n.

Wrong input

As we all know we humans make mistakes, all the time. When a typo - intentional or unintentional - is made, we should prompt for closest possible options or point to the documentation which would educate user to not make the same errors. Here are few examples:

In first example we prompt the user for typing wrong command name:

$ nix int
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Error! Command `int` not found.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Did you mean:
    |> nix init
    |> nix input

Sometimes users will make mistake either because of a typo or simply because of lack of discoverability. Our handling of this cases needs to be context sensitive.

$ nix init --template=template#pyton
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Error! Template `template#pyton` not found.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Initializing Nix project at `/path/to/here`.
      Select a template for you new project:
          |> template#pyton
             template#python-pip
             template#python-poetry

Next steps

It can be invaluable to newcomers to show what a possible next steps and what is the usual development workflow with Nix. For example:

$ nix init --template=template#python
Initializing project `template#python`
          in `/home/USER/dev/new-project`

  Next steps
    |> nix develop   -- to enter development environment
    |> nix build     -- to build your project

Educate the user

We should take any opportunity to educate users, but at the same time we must be very very careful to not annoy users. There is a thin line between being helpful and being annoying.

An example of educating users might be to provide Tips in places where they are waiting.

$ nix build
    Started building my-project 1.2.3
 Downloaded python3.8-poetry 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
 Downloaded python3.8-requests 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Press `v` to increase logs verbosity
         |> `?` to see other options
------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Learn something new with every build...
         |> See last logs of a build with `nix log --last` command.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Evaluated my-project 1.2.3 in 14.43 seconds
Downloading [12 / 200]
         |> firefox 1.2.3 [#########>       ] 10Mb/s | 2min left
   Building [2 / 20]
         |> glibc 1.2.3 -> buildPhase: <last log line>
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Now Learn part of the output is where you educate users. You should only show it when you know that a build will take some time and not annoy users of the builds that take only few seconds.

Every feature like this should go though a intensive review and testing to collect as much a feedback as possible and to fine tune every little detail. If done right this can be an awesome features beginners and advance users will love, but if not done perfectly it will annoy users and leave bad impression.

Input

Input to a command is provided via ARGUMENTS and OPTIONS.

ARGUMENTS represent a required input for a function. When choosing to use ARGUMENT over function please be aware of the downsides that come with it:

  • User will need to remember the order of ARGUMENTS. This is not a problem if there is only one ARGUMENT.
  • With OPTIONS it is possible to provide much better auto completion.
  • With OPTIONS it is possible to provide much better error message.
  • Using OPTIONS it will mean there is a little bit more typing.

We don’t discourage the use of ARGUMENTS, but simply want to make every developer consider the downsides and choose wisely.

Naming the OPTIONS

Then only naming convention - apart from the ones mentioned in Naming the COMMANDS section is how flags are named.

Flags are a type of OPTION that represent an option that can be turned ON of OFF. We can say flags are boolean type of **OPTION**.

Here are few examples of flag OPTIONS:

  • --colors vs. --no-colors (showing colors in the output)
  • --emojis vs. --no-emojis (showing emojis in the output)

Prompt when input not provided

For main commands (as per classification) we want command to improve the discoverability of possible input. A new user will most likely not know which ARGUMENTS and OPTIONS are required or which values are possible for those options.

In cases, the user might not provide the input or they provide wrong input, rather then show the error, prompt a user with an option to find and select correct input (see examples).

Prompting is of course not required when TTY is not attached to STDIN. This would mean that scripts wont need to handle prompt, but rather handle errors.

A place to use prompt and provide user with interactive select

$ nix init
Initializing Nix project at `/path/to/here`.
      Select a template for you new project:
          |> py
             template#python-pip
             template#python-poetry
             [ Showing 2 templates from 1345 templates ]

Another great place to add prompts are confirmation dialogues for dangerous actions. For example when adding new substitutor via OPTIONS or via flake.nix we should prompt - for the first time - and let user review what is going to happen.

$ nix build --option substitutors https://cache.example.org
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Warning! A security related question need to be answered.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  The following substitutors will be used to in `my-project`: 
    - https://cache.example.org

  Do you allow `my-project` to use above mentioned substitutors?
    [y/N] |> y

Output

Terminal output can be quite limiting in many ways. Which should forces us to think about the experience even more. As with every design the output is a compromise between being terse and being verbose, between showing help to beginners and annoying advance users. For this it is important that we know what are the priorities.

Nix command line should be first and foremost written with beginners in mind. But users wont stay beginners for long and what was once useful might quickly become annoying. There is no golden rule that we can give in this guideline that would make it easier how to draw a line and find best compromise.

What we would encourage is to build prototypes, do some user testing and collect feedback. Then repeat the cycle few times.

First design the happy path and only after your iron it out, continue to work on edge cases (handling and displaying errors, changes of the output by certain OPTIONS, etc…)

Follow best practices

Needless to say we Nix must be a good citizen and follow best practices in command line.

In short: STDOUT is for output, STDERR is for (human) messaging.

STDOUT and STDERR provide a way for you to output messages to the user while also allowing them to redirect content to a file. For example:

$ nix build > build.txt
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Error! Atrribute `bin` missing at (1:94) from string.
------------------------------------------------------------------------

  1| with import <nixpkgs> { }; (pkgs.runCommandCC or pkgs.runCommand) "shell" { buildInputs = [ (surge.bin) ]; } ""

Because this warning is on STDERR, it doesn’t end up in the file.

But not everything on STDERR is an error though. For example, you can run nix build and collect logs in a file while still seeing the progress.

$ nix build > build.txt
  Evaluated 1234 files in 1.2 seconds
 Downloaded python3.8-poetry 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
 Downloaded python3.8-requests 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Press `v` to increase logs verbosity
         |> `?` to see other options
------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Learn something new with every build...
         |> See last logs of a build with `nix log --last` command.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Evaluated my-project 1.2.3 in 14.43 seconds
Downloading [12 / 200]
         |> firefox 1.2.3 [#########>       ] 10Mb/s | 2min left
   Building [2 / 20]
         |> glibc 1.2.3 -> buildPhase: <last log line>
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Errors (WIP)

TODO: Once we have implementation for the happy path then we will think how to present errors.

Not only for humans

Terse, machine-readable output formats can also be useful but shouldn’t get in the way of making beautiful CLI output. When needed, commands should offer a --json flag to allow users to easily parse and script the CLI.

When TTY is not detected on STDOUT we should remove all design elements (no colors, no emojis and using ASCII instead of Unicode symbols). The same should happen when TTY is not detected on STDERR. We should not display progress / status section, but only print warnings and errors.

Dialog with the user

CLIs don't always make it clear when an action has taken place. For every action a user performs, your CLI should provide an equal and appropriate reaction, clearly highlighting the what just happened. For example:

$ nix build
 Downloaded python3.8-poetry 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
 Downloaded python3.8-requests 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
...
   Success! You have successfully built my-project.
$

Above command clearly states that command successfully completed. And in case of nix build, which is a command that might take some time to complete, it is equally important to also show that a command started.

Text alignment

Text alignment is the number one design element that will present all of the Nix commands as a family and not as separate tools glued together.

The format we should follow is:

$ nix COMMAND
   VERB_1 NOUN and other words
  VERB__1 NOUN and other words
       |> Some details 

Few rules that we can extract from above example:

  • Each line should start at least with one space.
  • First word should be a VERB and must be aligned to the right.
  • Second word should be a NOUN and must be aligned to the left.
  • If you can not find a good VERB / NOUN pair, don’t worry make it as understandable to the user as possible.
  • More details of each line can be provided by |> character which is serving as the first word when aligning the text

Don’t forget you should also test your terminal output with colors and emojis off (--no-colors --no-emojis).

Dim / Bright

After comparing few terminals with different color schemes we would recommend to avoid using dimmed text. The difference from the rest of the text is very little in many terminal and color scheme combinations. Sometimes the difference is not even notable, therefore relying on it wouldn’t make much sense.

The bright text is much better supported across terminals and color schemes. Most of the time the difference is perceived as if the bright text would be bold.

Colors

Humans are already conditioned by society to attach certain meaning to certain colors. While the meaning is not universal, a simple collection of colors is used to represent basic emotions.

Colors that can be used in output

  • Red = error, danger, stop
  • Green = success, good
  • Yellow/Orange = proceed with caution, warning, in progress
  • Blue/Magenta = stability, calm

While colors are nice, when command line is used by machines (in automation scripts) you want to remove the colors. There should be a global --no-colors option that would remove the colors.

Special (Unicode) characters

Most of the terminal have good support for Unicode characters and you should use them in your output by default. But always have a backup solution that is implemented only with ASCII characters and will be used when --ascii option is going to be passed in. Please make sure that you test your output also without Unicode characters

More they showing all the different Unicode characters it is important to establish common set of characters that we use for certain situations.

Emojis

Emojis help channel emotions even better than text, colors and special characters.

We recommend keeping the set of emojis to a minimum. This will enable each emoji to stand out more.

As not everybody is happy about emojis we should provide an --no-emojis option to disable them. Please make sure that you test your output also without emojis.

Tables

All commands that are listing certain data can be implemented in some sort of a table. It’s important that each row of your output is a single ‘entry’ of data. Never output table borders. It’s noisy and a huge pain for parsing using other tools such as grep.

Be mindful of the screen width. Only show a few columns by default with the table header, for more the table can be manipulated by the following options:

  • --no-headers: Show column headers by default but allow to hide them.
  • --columns: Comma-separated list of column names to add.
  • --sort: Allow sorting by column. Allow inverse and multi-column sort as well.

Interactive output

Interactive output was selected to be able to strike the balance between beginners and advance users. While the default output will target beginners it can, with a few key strokes, be changed into and advance introspection tool.

Progress

For longer running commands we should provide and overview of the progress. This is shown best in nix build example:

$ nix build
    Started building my-project 1.2.3
 Downloaded python3.8-poetry 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
 Downloaded python3.8-requests 1.2.3 in 5.3 seconds
------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Press `v` to increase logs verbosity
         |> `?` to see other options
------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Learn something new with every build...
         |> See last logs of a build with `nix log --last` command.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Evaluated my-project 1.2.3 in 14.43 seconds
Downloading [12 / 200]
         |> firefox 1.2.3 [#########>       ] 10Mb/s | 2min left
   Building [2 / 20]
         |> glibc 1.2.3 -> buildPhase: <last log line>
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Use a fzf like fuzzy search when there are multiple options to choose from.

$ nix init
Initializing Nix project at `/path/to/here`.
      Select a template for you new project:
          |> py
             template#python-pip
             template#python-poetry
             [ Showing 2 templates from 1345 templates ]

Prompt

In some situations we need to prompt the user and inform the user about what is going to happen.

$ nix build --option substitutors https://cache.example.org
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Warning! A security related question need to be answered.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
  The following substitutors will be used to in `my-project`: 
    - https://cache.example.org

  Do you allow `my-project` to use above mentioned substitutors?
    [y/N] |> y

Verbosity

There are many ways that you can control verbosity.

Verbosity levels are:

  • ERROR (level 0)
  • WARN (level 1)
  • NOTICE (level 2)
  • INFO (level 3)
  • TALKATIVE (level 4)
  • CHATTY (level 5)
  • DEBUG (level 6)
  • VOMIT (level 7)

The default level that the command starts is ERROR. The simplest way to increase the verbosity by stacking -v option (eg: -vvv == level 3 == INFO). There are also two shortcuts, --debug to run in DEBUG verbosity level and --quiet to run in ERROR verbosity level.


Appendix 1: Commands naming exceptions

nix init and nix repl are well established


Last update: November 4, 2021
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