What Is GUI (Graphical User Interface)?

This user interface design makes using your computer easier

Cropped Hand Holding Digital Tablet

Alexander Kirch/EyeEm/Getty Images

GUI stands for graphical user interface and is pronounced GOO-ee or gooey. A GUI contains graphic elements, such as the windows, menus, icons, links, and other screen elements, that you select when you’re working with an operating system, software application, or mobile app. Before the GUI was developed, users interacted with computers through the command line using text commands that were typed on the keyboard.

What is a User Interface and How Does it Work?

A user interface uses windows, icons, menus, and text to operate the software installed on a computer. The user selects one or a combination of these elements on the user interface by pressing keys on a keyboard, clicking with a mouse, or tapping on the screen. These series of actions make it quick and easy to open apps, move files, copy text, shop online, search for information, and perform other tasks.

There are two types of user interfaces: graphical user interfaces and command line user interfaces. Early computer systems used command line user interfaces. Modern computer operating systems and software apps use a graphical user interface to interact with the user. 

In command line user interfaces, all interactions with the computer and software are performed by typing commands on a computer keyboard. In graphical user interfaces, commands and actions are performed through direct manipulation of the graphical elements on the screen.

The Windows desktop GUI showing the Microsoft Word Graphical User Interface

GUIs aren’t just for computers. GUIs are found on smartphones, portable music players, refrigerators, printers, cars, and more. Anything that displays information on a screen and any screen that accepts user input takes advantage of a graphical user interface.

History of GUI

Before the GUI, computers screens only displayed plain text and were controlled by a keyboard. Interactions with the computer were typed into a command line. So, instead of dragging and dropping a file to move it, the user typed the command name, the name of the file to be moved, and the destination directory.

IBM PC 5150 with keyboard and green monochrome monitor (5151), running MS-DOS 5.0
Boffy b / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA

In 1981, Xerox introduced PARC, the first GUI. Steve Jobs saw PARC during a tour of Xerox and released a GUI-based operating system for the Macintosh in 1984. Microsoft followed in 1985 with Windows 1.0.

Microsoft Windows 1.0
Rezonansowy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

These GUI-based programs were controlled with a mouse pointer that moved around the screen when the user moved their physical mouse. Users no longer had to learn a long list of commands to operate a computer. Every command was represented in a menu or by an icon on the screen. The user selected these commands with the mouse. It was the beginning of point-and-click.

By 1990, the GUI began to look more like the GUIs used on every connected device currently in use.

Windows 3.0, Word, and Excel screen shot
Microsoft Sweden / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the early 2010s, new types of input were added to the GUI capability. GUIs designed for mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, also work with swipe and pinch touch commands. GUIs in newer model cars also work with the car’s button controls. GUIs also accept input from joysticks, light pens, cameras, and microphones. 

Features of the Graphical User Interface

A GUI is a collection of software programs that use the computer’s graphics capabilities to make apps easy to use. A GUI uses a pointer, a pointing device, and interface elements to operate the computer and software.

The pointer is the symbol on the screen that is used to select icons and perform tasks. The pointing device moves the pointer and can be any type of device including the arrow keys on a keyboard, a mouse, or a touch. The interface elements are the icons, menus, and windows that the user selects to start applications, open files, and execute commands.

These are the different types of user interface elements: 

  • Windows: Display information on the screen. Applications open in a window, a web browser displays web pages in a window, and documents display in a window. Windows can be moved, resized, and placed in front of other windows.
  • Menus: Offer a list of choices. Menus list all the commands available in a software app and arrange commands in logical groups.
  • Input controls: Select one or more options from a list of choices. Examples of input controls include check boxes, option buttons, dropdown lists, toggles, text fields, and date and time pickers.
  • Navigational components: Move from place to place in the interface. Examples include breadcrumbs, sliders, search boxes, pagination, and tags.
  • Informational components: Inform the user of the status of a task. Examples include notifications of incoming messages, progress bars, tool tips, and pop-up windows.
  • Containers: Show or hide blocks of information. When a container label is clicked, the section expands to show the content.

These graphical user interface elements offer a consistent visual clue about the tasks that can be performed with a software app. These GUI elements make it more comfortable for people to learn how to work with computers and make it easier to learn new software applications.