What is GUI? Elements, meaning, advantages and examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Electronic devices such as smartphones and computers all feature a graphical user interface that allows users to interact with them. This interface lets users execute commands and operate the software. The GUI displays visual objects that provide information to the user. In this article, we answer the question 'What is GUI?' and discuss details including its elements, benefits and its key features.

What is GUI?

The answer to 'What is GUI?' is straightforward: GUI is an acronym for Graphical User Interface. Created during the 1970s by Xerox Palo Alto laboratory, GUI was first incorporated within Windows and the Macintosh operating systems. GUIs allow users to interface with computers without the need for learning programming languages. The aim of the interface is to give the user visual objects that are easy to navigate, find and access. GUI essentially gives people the power to use their devices with simple gestures using their fingers.

Text-command line interfaces are difficult to use and learn. GUI lets users interact with devices by conventional gestures or actions like clicking, pointing to icons or widgets and executing commands such as opening tabs or scrolling with buttons. 'GUI programs' are programs that use a graphical user interface.

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How does it work?

The design of a graphical user interface depends on its adaptability to a certain software or its pattern. This allows the user to access or view specific information depending upon the screen size and the options available. Users interact and process the information with the help of visual features or widgets.

Graphical user interfaces also follow some standard conventions for displaying images and content. They allow users to communicate with applications to run commands using input devices or gestures. Professionals usually run extensive tests when designing GUIs to incorporate feedback from end-users.

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What are the elements of a GUI?

GUIs uses certain elements that come together to define the appearance of the interface. It has four primary elements that are further divided into different groups:

Input controls

Input controls take user input and execute actions. Here are some prime examples of input control elements:

Buttons

These are circular and let you instantly select options on the screen. Radio buttons refer to those that come in groups where users can only select one button at a time. Label buttons are those that have text on them. For multiple selections, designers prefer using checkboxes.

Date picker

A date picker lets you choose the relevant date or time according to region or location. You can add that in automatically or let users add it manually. Date pickers also ensure that users follow a consistent format when selecting a date.

Checkboxes

Checkboxes are those small squares that you might see in a list. Clicking a box means selecting something and to uncheck it, users click on the box again. A checkbox usually appears in smaller vertical lists as they take up more space.

List boxes

List boxes let you select different items from a single place. If you want to offer several options to the user, it's best to use list boxes. You can divided list boxes into four categories which include multi-select, single-line or dual multi-select boxes.

Text box

As obvious by the name, this allows you to write or enter text on a page. There may a limit to the content or text you can add in a space. You can also add a character counter to denote the maximum limit.

Toggle

This is a button that lets users change settings according to their preferences. You may switch some functions on/off in a few seconds. Toggle buttons often move when the user clicks on them to indicate their current position.

Dropdown list

A dropdown list allows users to select an item from several options. It's important to offer directors to the user, such as adding an instruction to 'select one.' For open-ended responses, you can also add an option for the user to write their own answer.

Navigational components

Navigational components let users navigate through the software, file system or the many options of a programme. Here are some examples of navigational components:

Icons

This is a small image used as a symbol to allow for convenient navigation. They're used in applications, files, folders or web browsers. An icon provides quick and easy access to documents and commands for instant execution.

Image carousel

This is similar to a carousel or a wheel and can allow users to scroll through multiple images at a time and click on one to view in full size. It displays a thumbnail to give users an idea of the full image. Designers can hyperlink individual images too.

Slider

A slider has a bar that lets users move it around. It has certain limitations added by the creator to match the design. Users can adjust the size of the bar.

Pagination

Pagination refers to the division or separation of content on multiple pages. You can see the breaks and scroll up or down as you want. Users can skip certain pages or view them in the specified order.

Tags

Tags let users quickly find content in similar categories. Users often have the option of adding their own tags too. Designers can also add pre-defined tags for categorising content in a database.

Search field

This is an empty space where you can enter a keyword or phrase to find what you want. Users can search for a specific keyword or entire sentences. Search fields are generally one-line text boxes and don't generally take up much screen real-estate. Enhanced search fields can view live results as user types without redirecting them to a results page too.

Tabs

These are the boxes displayed in a web browser or programme when you open multiple windows. If you click on one, the tab switches to display information and content pertaining to that page. You can close or open multiple tabs too.

Informational components

The following are some of the features that present the information to the user:

Message box

A message box is that small window that appears on the screen with important information. It requires a user to consider another action before moving forward. Message boxes often display important information.

Notifications

A notification is similar to a message box and displays important messages, often including warnings or errors or completion notifications. Designers have a lot of freedom when designing notification boxes, as the aim is to attract user attention.

Pop-up windows

A pop-up window prompts you to take action immediately or interact with it. Sometimes, you may not be able to return to the work you were doing without closing the window. Designers can trigger pop-up windows depending on user behaviour too, such as exit-intent pop-ups.

Progress bar

A progress bar indicates your position in a series of steps to complete a process. Progress bars are only there for you to see; you can't interact with them directly. An example of a progress bar is the one that appears on food delivery applications when people place their orders.

Tooltips

A tooltip provides details or more information when you place a cursor or finger over an icon or link. For example, when hovering over highlighted words on Wikipedia pages, you can view definitions or explanations of those words. Tooltips are great for presenting more information without taking up too much space on the screen.

Containers

Here is an example of a GUI container component:

Accordion

This is simply a stack of items that appear on top of one another. It lets users expand or collapse the list to view more information by clicking on it. Accordions allow designers to condense more content on the screen and show it only to interested users.

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Advantages of a GUI

One of the biggest advantages of a GUI is that it massively improves the usability of a programme. The features are easy to understand, such as drag and drop functionality. They also include easily recognizable icons like trash bins or folders. This allows users to quickly understand how applications or systems work without requiring any technical knowledge.

What is the difference between a character user interface and a graphical user interface?

A character user Interface, also known as a command-line user interface, refers to the use of text commands to interact with computers. To interact with a computer using a character user interface, users require an understanding of specific programming languages or commands. With graphical user interfaces, simple gestures or clicks are enough to run the same commands, with visual cues appearing on the screen.

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Example of a GUI

In 1962, Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad while studying at MIT. It's the first example of a graphical computer-aided design program. It required a light pen to allow users to create objects in real-time. Engineers used it for creating sketches and drawings at the time. Modern iterations of GUIs appear in nearly every interactive application, such as ATMs, self-service checkouts, video games, smartphones and desktops.

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