What is a Graphical User Interface?

R. Kayne

For many years, programming languages were exclusively command line driven. This limited users to people who had a working knowledge of the language so that they could issue cryptic commands to manipulate data. A graphical user interface (GUI) is like window dressing for a programming language. It creates a graphical representation of a desktop style environment with icons and menus representing objects and commands. The user can point and click to manipulate data and programs, without ever knowing the underlying language or a single command.

A graphical user interface is the visual presentation of the information a computer is processing.
A graphical user interface is the visual presentation of the information a computer is processing.

Anyone who was old enough in the 1980s to be aware of the computer revolution, no doubt remembers the success of the Apple® Macintosh® computer with its revolutionary graphical user interface and mouse. This was the first commercially successful, affordable computer that anyone could use, programming knowledge not required. Microsoft® quickly followed with the Windows® operating system and no one looked back. The graphical user interface was not only efficient and easy, but fun too.

While Apple and Microsoft brought the GUI into our homes, they were not responsible for inventing the first graphical user interface. Between 1965-1968 Doug Engelbart, with Stanford Research Institute at the time, got together with some colleagues to create a window-style hypertext environment augmented by the invention of a little three-button gizmo that would allow a user to point and click on objects in the window. The gizmo, with its button-eyes, nose, and electrical “tail” resembled a mouse, and so the device got its name. Engelbart’s inspiration for the GUI came in part from ideas proposed thirty years earlier by lauded American engineer, Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 published paper on the “memex” system.

The Xerox® Corporation developed two computers with a graphical user interface and mouse, modeled after Engelbart’s work. The Alto, and The Star; the latter released in 1981 to the public. The computer was expensive and the hardware inadequate relative to the needs of the operating system. Though it only sold a reported 25,000 units, it is thought to be at least partly responsible for inspiring Steve Jobs (Apple founder), and Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) to push their development teams towards creating the Macintosh and Windows operating systems.

Since the graphical user interface is the first thing a user sees when a program opens, designing a visually appealing interface can go a long way towards creating appeal for a program. However, the most important factor is whether or not the GUI is intuitive to use. Anyone with some experience using software should be able to locate basic functions in an unfamiliar program without consulting a manual, finding menus, tools and options where expected. Advanced or proprietary features should be integrated in a way that makes sense to the user so it isn’t a chore to remember how to access and utilize them. A flashy GUI will only take a program so far. If the graphical user interface is not intuitive and efficiently designed, the software isn’t likely to become very popular.

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