Let’s explore how graphical user interfaces (GUIs) let users interact with computers and mobile devices using intuitive elements and why that matters.
Lots of amazing technology had to come together to make the computers and mobile devices many people now know and love. Microprocessors, wireless communication, and touchscreen technology get the most recognition, but graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are what make it all possible.
GUIs transformed how users interact with electronic devices by turning complex commands into intuitive visual interfaces. This made technology accessible to more people and fostered a new era of digital innovation. To see how that came about, let’s explore what a graphical user interface is and why it made such a big impact on the computing world.
Graphical user interface (GUI), defined
A graphical user interface, commonly called a GUI, offers people a visual way to use electronic devices. This type of user interface replaces complex text-based commands with graphical elements, also known as visual widgets, like windows, icons, and scroll bars that you can control with a click of a button.
For instance, instead of inputting commands to access and open a program in the CLI directory, you can simply double-click its icon. If you want to save your work in Microsoft Word, tap the floppy disc button. Want to decrease the volume level on your device? Just drag the slider instead of typing “Set volume level=40%.”
By streamlining interactions, GUIs have shaved precious seconds—sometimes even minutes—from every task. As a result, electronic devices are much more user-friendly for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Nowadays, GUIs are omnipresent. All operating systems, software applications, and websites have their own GUIs that guide people through their functions, providing an excellent user experience.
The early days of user interfaces
Graphical user interfaces are currently the gold standard for all electronic devices. They allow you to easily interact with smartphones, laptops, handheld gaming systems, automotive navigation systems, self-service checkouts, train ticket kiosks, and more. But it wasn’t always that way.
Before the rise of GUIs, computer users completed tasks through either a text-based interface or a command-line interface. Although these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, the systems are pretty different. Text-based interfaces guide users through tasks using structured menus and prompts. Command-line interfaces require users to type specific text commands using the correct syntax.
Overall, text-based systems were simpler to use, while command-line interfaces provided more control. Despite their individual advantages at the time, both interfaces had a steep learning curve and inefficient design, inspiring developers to create something new.
In 1963, Ivan Sutherland took the first crack at this by creating Sketchpad, the world’s first graphical computer-aided design program. Douglas Engelbart and his Stanford Research Institute team pushed the technology forward, followed by Alan Kay and his fellow Xerox PARC researchers. Each new iteration led to the system that modern GUIs are built upon today.