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Short for graphical user interface, a GUI allows users to navigate and interact with information on their computer screen in a visual way instead of typing words and phrases into a command line interface.
On most computers, particularly those running Windows and Mac OS, the majority of user operations are managed by moving a mouse to point, click, and drag icons and other data around on the screen. On smartphones and tablets, these same operations are managed using the device’s touch screen.
GUIs allow users to intuitively interact with a computer, organize items in a personal way, and easily navigate through incredible amounts of digital content. For instance, your file explorer is probably designed so that each folder actually looks like the folders in a real filing cabinet. Document files are designed to look like pieces of printed paper. Music files are often displayed as icons with music notes. And when you browse your saved photos, each one appears as a tiny version of the full image, so you can quickly scan through for the one you’re looking for.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does anyone still use a text-based interface?
Text-based interfaces have become increasingly rare, particularly in the era of mobile technology. This is both because users want simple interactions with their devices and don’t want to have to learn all of the commands required for text-based computing, and because many mobile devices are locked their manufacturer or your mobile carrier to improve security. What’s more, since most mobile devices lack a physical keyboard, even a command line terminal would require the use of a virtual keyboard, which is itself a GUI.
Despite the increasing move toward graphical user interfaces, text-based or command line interfaces are still used on many machines, particularly servers, where administrators need a level of control that is not always possible using the system’s GUI. Many server applications also utilize command line interfaces to set up and customize automated processes. For instance, many programs that allow users to add photo galleries to a webpage use command line instructions to determine how uploaded photos should be automatically resized and displayed on the screen.
I have to type addresses into the web browser. Does that mean it’s not a GUI?
GUI interfaces often combine text and graphics. For instance, when you create a document in Microsoft Word, you type the document, but any action you take beyond simple typing, such as increasing the font size or saving your file, are done using the icons at the top of the screen. The World Wide Web is also a GUI, as it allows you to visually navigate the information on the Internet. Even though you need to type in an address to reach a page, you can also get to that page by searching and clicking on a visual link, or by using a visual bookmark. You also navigate using the back button, slide the page up and down with your mouse or your finger, and adjust your settings using a graphical interface.