What’s next for the Graphical User Interface (GUI)?

Person working on PC
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Where would you be without the graphical user interface (GUI)? Certainly not right here right now reading this.

Almost exclusively, everything we interact with digitally has a graphical user interface. But it’s easy to forget that you’re interacting with it and, like most life-changing innovations, simply take for granted that it didn’t always exist. And in fact, it was developed only 60 years ago, thanks to Ivan Sutherland.

Sutherland developed Sketchpad, the first interactive digital drawing program to completely use a GUI, in 1963. Prior to its introduction, every interaction with a computer was with a physical knob and/or a dial, using punch cards to program a computer. Fast forward ten years to 1973 and Xerox PARC introduced Alto, the first non-commercial—or personal—computer using GUI, along with the mouse. But it wasn’t until the next decade, in 1983 when Apple came out with the Lisa computer, that GUI became mainstream, popularizing personal computers.

As soon as something graphical in nature, accompanied by the concept of a mouse pointer came along, it completely revolutionized the way in which we interact with electronic devices such as computers and smartphones using graphical icons or audio indicators. You can thank Sutherland and user experience (UX) designers today for not having to use text instructions or, worse, type command labels to navigate the internet, apps or anything on your computer or mobile devices.

James Morley-Smith

James Morley-Smith is User Experience Leader at Zebra Technologies.

We’re living in a virtual world

The way we interact, work and live today is because of what seems like a simple leap of faith, going from text-based to graphical computing. It feels so simple, and so right or natural, that it seems so blatantly obvious now.

Today, GUIs are everywhere in the consumer and business world, so much so that the ‘G’ or ‘graphical’ in ‘GUI’ is no longer necessary. We expect that each day when we log onto our devices, there will be a visual interface that allows us to interact with our devices, software and applications – proving how far Ivan’s once seemingly small innovation has come.

From a global commerce perspective, GUI is the point at which all customers digitally interact with your business or solution. The digital moment of truth so to speak. Whether it’s via a smart phone, tablet, television, computer desktop, or even the entertainment system in an automobile, it’s when a user—your customer—digitally connects with your business and interacts with your solutions. That moment is vital and a really valuable asset for businesses, especially technology solution providers, that leverage GUIs within solutions.

In the world of enterprise and industry, we now see retail associates, warehouse workers, manufacturing plant floor engineers, nurses, and millions of other essential front-line workers interacting with well-refined UIs to track their tasks, receive and send time-sensitive updates, and communicate with colleagues simply by looking, tapping and talking via their device screen.

Take a mobile device. They’re used across industries, in the hands of warehouse workers and retail associates to engineers using machine vision and robots. GUI literally changed how they can work. It’s come so far that workers on the front line of a warehouse can clearly read tasks from a device in hand or even on their wrist, streamlining workflows, efficiency and speed. A retail associate can check stock or check-out a customer from anywhere in a store, all from a device operating with a GUI. And a simple touch screen and the ability to “drag and drop,” enables workers to easily set-up and use machine vision systems and robots.

The psychological aspect of modern UIs has also helped businesses ensure workers are interpreting information in a way that is as easy and frictionless as possible. For example, UIs are being adapted to account for people’s situational disabilities and meet accessibility standards by addressing possible impairments (such as compromised hearing or bulky clothing). This helps provide an all-around better UX for workers, increasing their confidence and inclination to stay with an employer who sees and values them as people first.

GUI has changed how we all interact personally and professionally. It's fair to say, that without the graphical user interface, computing wouldn't be what it is today. Shopping from your smart phone? Telemedicine? Video conference calls? Homework on tablets? Texting? FaceTime? Much of how we routinely function today wouldn’t be possible without GUI.

Moving forward fully immersed

The GUI can also present challenges. But every challenge creates an opportunity for innovation. For example, we have keyboards on our laptops. If you’re visually impaired, you can interact with the keyboard, but may not be able to see the screen. That means there has to be adaptations to interpret that screen. This also applies to a smartphone, which is more challenging as there’s no physical keyboard, so what can be put in its place? Developing adaptations for GUIs requires another layer of innovation. It's revolutionary in terms of our understanding of computing so it works for everyone.

While the first graphical user interfaces were very simplistic, with two-colors, with very few and course pixel density. Now we have high-definition screens. In fact, the Mac display is called the retina display because it’s the highest detail that the human eye can see, yet not able to distinguish the fine pixelation.

Where will our sights go from here? Virtually anywhere, literally.

Virtual and augmented reality, or the metaverse (interestingly Sutherland created the first Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) head mounted display system) are another form of GUI. They’re here now. and we should expect them to become more mainstream more quickly than we can imagine. In a 3D metaverse global commerce world, for example, employees could meet in a virtual conference room with the ability to show natural expressions that are computer generated.

This would remove the need to travel halfway around the world, reducing financial, personal and environmental impacts. While we may not spend our lives in the metaverse, we should foresee a world where living in an immersive graphical user interface will be a reality.

The next iteration of GUI will likely be combined significantly with voice interfaces, the voice or chatbot. It will provide a whole new avenue of interaction. The conversations that you have with a chatbot now may be simplistic or equivalent to child, but it will rapidly evolve to an 18-year-old and then a 30-year-old so you can more confidently rely on its answers, and at some point, even debate with it about the quality of its response. For any Trekkies, it will be similar to the conversations Captain Kirk had with the Enterprise computer.

Thinking about how we interact with technology, or the user experience, how is an experience realized? A chat, voice or metaverse experience is an extension of GUI. And as these experiences evolve into our daily lives and world, we’ll likely forget there was a time without them. As it becomes second nature, we take for granted that it started somewhere and was invented at some point.

Perhaps Sutherland said it best, “The screen is a window through which one sees a virtual world. The challenge is to make that world look real, act real, sound real, feel real.”

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James Morley-Smith is User Experience Leader at Zebra Technologies. Zebra (NASDAQ: ZBRA) helps organizations monitor, anticipate, and accelerate workflows by empowering their frontline and ensuring that everyone and everything is visible, connected and fully optimized.