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Evolution of the graphical user interface (GUI)

19 January, 2016 - 15:24

The graphical user interface (GUI) has become synonymous with personal computing. The usability of its familiar WIMP toolset is apparent in the Apple Macintosh™ and Microsoft Windows™ operating systems. Prior to GUI systems, the most common interaction style was the command line interface. WIMP tools replaced system commands with direct manipulation methods such as cut-and-paste and drag-and-drop.

In addition to the point-and-click/hypertext style mentioned in Table 1.1, the Web has popularized many of the other elements found in the GUI/WIMP philosophy. HTML provides native support for most of the common WIMP features, e.g. menus, dialog boxes, links, etc. The Web has also perhaps provided many application developers with their first opportunity to directly design and implement interfaces. Given the global recognition of the Web, its interface has become a metaphor for other UIs that are not Web-based.

Table 1.1 Interaction styles



Command line interface

Uses a fixed set of commands peculiar to the underlying computing systems that are explicitly entered (e.g. typed) by the user 


Uses a fixed set of commands presented to the user in menu form; users select the appropriate command from the menu

Natural language

Input and/or output is presented as natural language either written or spoken 

Query dialogue

Interaction between the user and computing system is accomplished by means of a series of questions and answers 

Form completion

Input is accomplished using forms; such interaction is commonly used in Web-based commerce, searching and database queries 


A suite of interaction methods (windows, icons, menus and pointers) commonly identified as GUI 

Point and click/hypertext

The interaction style most commonly associated with the Web 

Three-dimensional interfaces/immersion

Support of interaction in three-dimensional environments; it often provides the user with the illusion of being immersed within the process or data being interacted with 


Interactions involving more than one modality; for example, a combination of audio and kinesthetic

Adopting the Web metaphor takes advantage of a user's knowledge of the Web thereby promoting the interface design goals of learnability and predictability. An example of a system using a Web metaphor might be a ticket kiosk that takes advantage of links and menus for customer navigation. The designer of the kiosk interface may assume that its users are familiar with the Web interaction style and that they would therefore find the interface immediately usable.

As Web applications are moving to more diverse devices (e.g. mobile telephones), however, the GUI/WIMP metaphor is becoming less effective. For example, the use of scrollbars for view management on a desktop or laptop system becomes quite awkward on the small display of a telephone. As new interface techniques evolve to accommodate such devices, the technology will likely move away from the GUI/WIMP style. Likewise, to support device consistency, these new styles will move across the usage spectrum including adoption by Web systems.

In the following video, Prof. White assesses some of the current issues affecting interface design.