What is a Graphical User Interface (GUI)? - Definition, Components & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a GUI?
  • 1:19 History of the GUI
  • 2:44 GUI Components
  • 3:34 Examples of GUIs
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lonny Meinecke

Lonny teaches psychology classes at King University, and has a bachelor's degree in IT and a doctorate in psychology.

If you use a computer or smart phone, you have used a GUI. In this lesson we will find out what a GUI is, quickly trace its history, and cover its key components. We'll also take a look at some current examples.

What Is a GUI?

What's a GUI? If you're reading this, chances are you're looking at one! GUI stands for graphical user interface. A GUI, which some folks pronounce as 'gooey', is exactly what it sounds like... a graphical way to do stuff. Simply put, a graphical user interface is a way to communicate what you want to a computer application (or computer operating system) using graphical symbols rather than typing the instructions in. GUIs let you work with picture-like items (icons and arrows for example) to tell the computer what you want from it. And, rather than a keyboard (which can leave you guessing what to type next), you get to scoot around a blocky thing on your desk called a mouse, which makes the arrows and icons scoot around on the screen. Much easier!

You may not have even heard of the opposite of a GUI, which is a command-line interface or CLI. Yep, years ago us geezers used to hunch over keyboards and laboriously type in cryptic, difficult-to-memorize phrases just to do stuff. We also hoped the computer wouldn't reply with something obtuse like 'SYNTAX ERROR', 'INVALID PIP FORMAT' or some other unhelpful reply. Command-line interfaces still exist today. In fact, without them, many important computer tasks would be downright difficult. However, for most daily needs and casual users, the GUI is a nice thing to have.

History of the GUI

Years ago, before the Apple Macintosh operating system or the Windows operating system, the only way to tell a computer what you wanted was to type text commands into the command-line interface. Believe me, it was more like trying to solve a crossword puzzle with no squares - or hints! Thick user manuals with long lists of parameters and command-line switches (don't ask!) were your best friend. On the screen - if you even had one - you saw an empty black screen with a flashing block of phosphor. That was it. If you had a keyboard and not just punchcards, you memorized long commands and hoped you didn't type them in wrong.

Then some fellas at Xerox in Palo Alto around 1981, thought up a neat way to get around all that memorizing and typing, using graphic icons and arrows. Smart folks! Eventually this trickled down from big computers (which had been running UNIX, another CLI system). Personal computers really needed an easy interface for casual users. But at the time, even personal computers looked like UNIX. Most old PCs ran an operating system called CP/M, a simple command-line interface that sort of evolved into the amazing graphic computer desktops you see today.

Even today you can see its legacy. For example, there are still word processing shortcuts in modern programs from the infamous WordStar for CP/M, which had the strangest keyboard combinations you will ever see. The rest, as they say, is history.

GUI Components

The main pieces of a GUI are:

  • A graphic pointer of some kind
  • A set of icons symbolizing various things
  • Rectangular frames that hold text (called windows and dialogs)
  • Drop-down menus that are like signposts leading to things you want to do
  • Scroll bars that allow you to scoot content around (so you can see things that won't fit otherwise)
  • An input device or two (the mouse is the current fav, but there are many others, like joysticks, paddle controllers, keyboards, and an assortment of bizarre wannabes)

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