What Is a GUI (Graphical User Interface)?

This type of design makes using your computer easier

GUI stands for graphical user interface and is pronounced GOO-ee or gooey. A GUI contains graphic elements such as windows, menus, icons, and links that you select when you’re working with an operating system, software application, or mobile app.

Cropped Hand Holding Digital Tablet
Alexander Kirch/EyeEm/Getty Images

Command-Line Interfaces Ruled Past Computer Interaction

To really appreciate GUI design, it helps to know what preceded it. Before GUI was commonly used, computer 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, users typed the command name, the name of the file to be moved, and the destination directory. Users had to memorize the commands required to perform these and many other functions.

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

GUI: A Visual Revolution

A GUI is very different. Rather than being text-based, it's visually based, making the computer much easier to use. When operating systems and applications incorporate a GUI, commands, and actions are performed through direct manipulation of the graphical elements on the screen. Within GUIs, the following types of interface elements are commonly used: 

  • Windows displays information on the screen. Applications, web pages, and documents all open in windows. Windows can be moved, resized, and placed in front of each other.
  • Menus offer lists of actions to choose from. They arrange the commands available in an application into logical groups.
  • Input controls enable users to select one or more options from a list. Input controls include checkboxes, option buttons, dropdown lists, toggles, text fields, and date and time pickers.
  • Navigational components enable users to move from place to place within the interface. Examples include breadcrumbs, sliders, search boxes, pagination, and tags.
  • Informational components inform users of the status of a task. Examples include notifications of incoming messages, progress bars, tooltips, and pop-up windows.
The Windows desktop GUI showing the Microsoft Word Graphical User Interface

Users select one or a combination of the above elements by pressing keys on a keyboard, clicking with a mouse, or tapping on the screen. These actions make it simple to start applications, open files, navigate websites, and perform other tasks.

These GUI elements provide consistent visual indications of the tasks that can be performed within an application. They also make learning new applications more comfortable.

History of GUI

In 1981, Xerox introduced PARC, the first GUI. Apple founder Steve Jobs saw it 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 users moved a physical mouse. It was the beginning of point-and-click. This shift meant 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.

By 1990, GUIs began to look more like those used on modern devices.

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

In the early 2010s, new input types, such as swipe and pinch commands, were added to GUI capability to accommodate the growing mobile market. Computer GUIs now also accept input from joysticks, light pens, cameras, and microphones. Even newer model cars use GUIs in conjunction with button controls.

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