What Is a Graphical User Interface?

Jun 20, 2022 | User Interface

Typically, humans extract information about the world using their different senses like vision. As visual creatures, humans learn to interact and communicate with varying objects from birth. 

With the advent of computers, they were forced to think abstractly and deal with a larger number of commands they would not easily remember when performing different tasks. Especially if some of them are performed very infrequently. 

Fortunately, computers progressively implemented unique graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to help improve visual operational efficiency for humans interacting with computers. 

So, what is a graphical user interface?

A GUI (graphical user interface) is a system of interactive visual components 

through which users interact with electronic devices via visual indicators and representations.

GUIs were initially introduced in reaction to the steep learning curve of command-line interfaces (CLIs) that required commands to be typed on a computer keyboard.

A GUI helps translate information and represent actions that a user can take. The actions in a GUI are typically performed through direct manipulation of the graphical elements. 

Beyond computers, GUIs are utilised in multiple handheld mobile devices like MP3 players, gaming devices, smartphones and even smaller household, office and industrial controls.

How does the Graphical User Interface work?

As hinted on earlier, a GUI operates by the manipulation of graphical objects. A GUI primarily does this by exploiting a pointer that serves as a navigation instrument to interact with disparate visually appealing graphical icons. 

Abstraction is a key concept that is used in GUI operating systems. Users can employ a pointer to click on the icon that initiates a series of actions. 

Typically, an app or functionality will get started, then the user has to provide input or tasks to generate the intended action from the machine. 

The GUI basically translates user language, which can constitute simple one-line commands, single click and double clicks to a machine language or assembly language. 

The machine comprehends the machine language and then responds to the task initiated, which is then translated to the user language and communicated to the user through the GUI.

Furthermore, the appearance of the operating system or application software can be redesigned at will as graphical user interfaces are independent of application functions. 

Apps usually implement their own unique GUI display elements in addition to GUI elements already present on the existing operating system. 

Advantages of graphical user interface

  • Each and every response from the computer can be visually communicated through GUI.
  • GUIs offer simplicity as someone with no technical computer knowledge can use the computer and perform basic functions. 
  • GUIs are visually appealing and can make anyone get involved in working with the machine.
  • Search functions are streamlined as GUIs provide a visual representation of files present and provide details about them.
  • There isn’t a steep learning curve as GUIs provide a wide scope for users to explore computer functions and discoverability.

Character interface vs Graphical user interface

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Command-line interface

Commonly known as a command-line user interface or non-graphical user interface, a character user interface employs text commands, managed by a command-line interpreter to communicate with a computer program. 

Software developers and system administrators exploit command-line interfaces to configure machines, manage files, and access program functions that are otherwise unavailable on a graphical user interface.

Character user interfaces essentially support automation and scripting. They also tend to provide greater granular control and a higher level of functionality than GUIs. 

While the command-line interface was the principal method of operating computers throughout the 1980s, most modern electronic devices currently utilise intuitive graphical user interfaces. 

So, the average user will rarely (if ever) have a reason to access a command-line interface. Here are some most popular graphical user interfaces known to users globally: 

Microsoft Windows 11 Graphical User Interface
Microsoft Windows 11 Graphical User Interface
Apple OS Graphical User Interface
Apple OS Graphical User Interface

Features of graphical user interface

To make a graphical user interface as user-friendly as possible, there are unique elements and objects a user can employ to interact with software. For example:

Microsft Windows 11 Application UI
Microsft Windows 11 Application UI
  • Button – This is a graphical representation of a button that performs an action in a program when pressed.
  • Toolbar – This is made up of a row of buttons, typically near the top of an application window, that control software functions.
  • Dialog box – This type of window displays extra information and asks a user for their input.
  • Ribbon – This serves as a replacement for the File menu and toolbar and groups program activities together.
  • Icon – These are small graphical representations of a program, feature, or file.
  • Menu – These are a list of commands or choices offered to the user through the menu bar.
  • Menu bar – This is a thin, horizontal bar containing the labels of menus.
  • Tab – This is a clickable area at the top of a window that shows another page or area.
  • Window – Rectangular section of a computer’s display that shows the program currently being used.

Graphical user interface (GUI) examples

  • Microsoft Windows
  • Microsoft programs like Word, Excel, and Outlook.
  • Apple’s macOS
  • Chrome OS
  • Linux variants like Ubuntu
  • Internet browsers, like Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox.


A GUI is more user-friendly than a text-based command-line interface, like MS-DOS

Unlike a command-line operating system, a GUI operating systems are easier to learn because commands do not need to be memorised. 

The bottom line is that users don’t need to know any programming languages when using a GUI. So, because of their ease of use and modern appearance, GUI operating systems currently dominate today’s market.

Generally, GUIs are a crucial element of the communication of humans with the modern world. As such, an intuitive and usable GUI is key to success for any product that requires constant user interaction.

By working with a user experience consultant to design a GUI that is intuitive and easy to use, businesses can increase user satisfaction and engagement, ultimately leading to improved outcomes for their products or services.

The article is a part of our comprehensive series on “User interface.”

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