What Is a GUI (Graphical User Interface)? Definition, Elements and Benefits

Updated February 3, 2023

Common devices like smartphones, computers and tablets all feature a visual component known as graphical user interface (GUI). In this article, we provide an overview of what a graphical user interface is, including its elements and benefits.

Hand holds a cellphone with a checkmark on it. Above it is the title, "What are the benefits of a GUI?" with 5 benefits listed below: 1. Easy use, Easy understanding, 3. Attractiveness, 4. Shortcuts and 5. Multitasking

What is a GUI?

GUI is the acronym for graphical user interface—the interface that allows users to interact with electronic devices, such as computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets, through graphical elements. It’s a valuable part of software application programming in regards to human-computer interaction, replacing text-based commands with user-friendly actions. Its goal is to present the user with decision points that are easy to find, understand and use. In other words, GUI lets you control your device with a mouse, pen or even your finger.

GUI was created because text command-line interfaces were complicated and difficult to learn. The GUI process lets you click or point to a small picture, known as an icon or widget, and open a command or function on your devices, such as tabs, buttons, scroll bars, menus, icons, pointers and windows. It is now the standard for user-centered design in software application programming.

Programs that use GUI are known as “GUI programs.” The program creates small pictures of tasks or functions and waits for the user to interact with them. The user controls when and how they will be used. To select functions, users can either use a keyboard, pointing device, such as a mouse, touchpad or touchscreen depending on the device.

GUI elements

GUI uses structural elements that together define the appearance of the interface. GUI pulls its elements from four basic groups, including:

1. Input controls

Here are examples of GUI input control elements:

  • Buttons: Buttons are circles that let you make immediate choices and take actions. Radio buttons come in groups where only one button can be selected at a time. Label buttons have text on them. If you want more than one option to be selected, consider using a check box.

  • Checkboxes: Checkboxes are square boxes in a list of one or more options. When you click the box, it stays selected. They are best presented in a vertical list. A checkbox can be a single box, such as acknowledging a statement, or a list of related items, such as a shopping list.

  • Date picker: A date picker lets you select a date and/or time. The creator can choose a calendar or a fill-in option. It ensures that a consistent format is used, such as “day, month, year.”

  • Dropdown lists: Dropdown lists lets you select one item at a time. Several items can be included compactly. Consider adding directions, such as “select one” to let the user know what to do. The creator can add or delete items to keep the list up to date.

  • List boxes: List boxes let you select multiple items from one compact list. Use this GUI feature if you have a long list of options for the user to consider. There are four variations of list boxes: single-line, multiselect, multiselect with checkboxes and multiselect-dual list boxes.

  • Text boxes: Text boxes are fields that let you enter text. The creator can control how much text is allowed.

  • Toggles: Toggle buttons let you change a setting typically as off/on states.

2. Navigational components

Here are examples of GUI navigational elements:

  • Breadcrumbs: Breadcrumbs provide a clickable trail of proceeding pages. They give you a visual map of pages for your navigation ease.

  • Icons: An icon is a small image used as a symbol to help you navigate the system. They are typically used to indicate an application, folder, file or web browser. Using an icon is a fast way to open documents and run programs. Also, all files that you create in the same application will have the icon of the application and the same extension.

  • Image carousel An image carousel lets you scroll through a set of images and choose the one you’d like to see enlarged. The carousel typically holds thumbnail images that may be hyperlinked.

  • Pagination: Pagination divides content into pages and lets you skip between them or follow them in order.

  • Search field: The search box lets you enter a keyword or phrase to search an index for relevant results. They typically are one-line text boxes with a search button.

  • Slider: A slider has a bar and a tick that slides across it. The creator can control the size of the bar and tick, the bar margins and its orientation.

  • Tags: Tags let you find content within the same category. Options include giving the user the ability to add their own tags into the system.

  • Tabs: A tab is a small box that displays the name or graphical icon associated with a specific window. When you choose a tab, you will see the specific controls and information presented in that window. For example, when you open multiple pages in a web browser, you will see the different tabs displayed at the top of the browser window.

3. Informational components

Here are examples of GUI informational elements:

  • Message box: A message box is a small window with information such as a policy or disclaimer. It requires you to take action before you proceed.

  • Notifications: A notification is a message box. Typically, they are used to indicate emergency warnings, error messages or task completion.

  • Pop-up windows: A pop-up, or modal, window requires you to interact with it before you can return to the system.

  • Progress bar: A progress bar shows where you are in a series of steps in a process. Typically, progress bars are not clickable. For example, a progress bar might show your pizza order’s status in the order, cook and delivery process.

  • Tool tips: A tool tip offers you more information when you hover over an item. For example, you might receive a definition and usage examples when you hover over a word or phrase.

4. Containers

Here is an example of a GUI container element:

  • Accordions: Accordions are stacked lists of items that have a show and hide functionality. When the label is clicked, the list expands to its full size.

Interaction elements of a GUI

Apart from structural elements, a GUI also features interaction elements, such as:

  • Cursors: A cursor indicates the place where the system will accept input next. It can either be a pointer, which follows the movements of a pointing device—such as a mouse—or a text cursor, which indicates the point of focus in a current text box.

  • Selections: A selection refers to a list of items to which a user will apply an operation. A user will select a portion of text for cut, copy and paste operations. Image editing applications allow users to select and modify certain areas of an image by using the magic wand selection or lasso selection tools.

  • Adjustment handles: A handle serves as the indicator of a drag and drop operation. When a user places the pointer on the handle to initiate the drag process, its shape changes to an icon that represents the drag function.

What are the benefits of a GUI?

Older desktop operating systems, such as MS-DOS, and many current programming languages, employ command-line interfaces that require you to type in long lines of code at a command line to access the system’s functions. You have to know the system’s available commands and how to input them in the correct format. This means that small mistakes, like spelling errors or incorrect spacing, will prevent a function from being executed.

GUI uses visual elements to represent those now hidden lines of command. You simply select a button or an icon to call the relevant function. The easy use of GUIs has made it possible for the public in general, regardless of experience or knowledge, to access all kinds of systems for everyday use.

There are many other benefits to using GUI. Here are some of the most common:

1. Easy to use

Since data is represented by symbols, shapes and icons, users can easily recognize, classify and navigate options. A simple click is all it takes to acquire a function. Because it’s so easy to use and understand, GUI has become the preferred interface for computers and mobile devices.

2. Easy to communicate

Visual representation of data is recognized faster than text. Non-programmers find it easy to use GUIs since it requires no experience with computing commands. They don’t have to worry about writing or debugging code. As a result, users find GUI an easy-to-learn interface.

3. Attractive

GUI has visually appealing features and is not cluttered with command line codes. Visual images can portray emotions, comments and situations with long lines of computer language. Pictures and such are easy to understand and often carry universal meaning.

4. Provides shortcuts

GUI lets users take advantage of shortcut keys to minimize strokes. A combination of two keys in place of several actions saves the user time and increases productivity. For example, a call-to-action button can pull up a form, a prefilled letter or a list of contact information. That one button saves you from searching for the same information.

5. Allows for multitasking

GUI lets users work and view two or more programs at the same time. For example, you can view a streaming presentation while searching the internet from a web browser. You can watch a video while writing a review of the presentation with a search engine in another tab.

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