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Types of User Interface

Updated on April 12, 2018
amuno profile image

Alfred is a long-time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

The different types of user interface (UI) are determined by the evolving generations and technology. User interface defines the means by which humans interact with computers. It explains how raw data is input and read to computer programs for processing.

The UI has gone through numerous changes since the days of the giant ENIAC computer to the present game console.

While this interaction was largely faceless in the 1940s, modern interaction takes advantage of gestures and voice commands, interfaces which have largely leaned towards artificial intelligence.

Below are all the types of user interfaces used since the 1940s:

1. Punch Cards and Plugboards - 1940s

The history of user interfaces dates as far back as the 1940s when batch computing was the norm in data input and output. It was a rather rudimentary approach.

With punch cards, there was almost no interaction between the user and computer, apart from the initial input command, which was done by perforating holes in punch cards.

Punched cards
Punched cards | Source

The programmers wired up electrical circuits by connecting cables to plugboards. Then they slotted in specified punched cards into them and waited for hours for some form of computation while hoping every one of the thousands of vacuum tubes lasted the distance.

With no particular display to look at, the computer basically went into a frenzy of processing and gave out data on cards or magnetic tape. This type of operation which would normally take hours and days.

Often, it printed out errors instead of desired output. Countless days would pass by in an attempt to process a simple billing report.

This kind of interaction gradually transformed to command line interface which became popular in 1980 – 1990s.

How Punch Cards were used

2. Command Line\Shell Interface - 1970s

Command line interface - CLI is where the user types text commands to the monitor using the keyboard. The user is limited to pre-defined command syntax and anything else would generate errors from the operating system.

A program that implements text command interface is called command line interpreter or shell; the former mainly used within DOS in windows systems and the latter within Unix/Linux distributions.

Command Line Interface (CLI) is a type of user interface popularised by DOS
Command Line Interface (CLI) is a type of user interface popularised by DOS

A command prompt or just prompt is a symbol or a sequence of one or more characters used in a command-line interface to indicate readiness to accept commands. The Prompt literally prompts the user to take action. A prompt includes other information, such as the path of a file.

The command prompt C:\> precedes the command to be input. DIR short for directory is a command that is input after the above Prompt to display the available directories or folders in the root C drive:

The MS-DOS prompt application in a Windows operating system is an example of command line interface.

As mentioned above, Unix/Linux distribution OSes refer to the CLI as shell. Shell originally shipped with Unix but over the years, with increasing use of Linux distributions, bash (Bourne Again SHell) became popular. Bash was an enhanced version of sh which was originally written by Steve Bourne.

Today most users prefer the graphical and natural user interfaces offered by Windows, Mac OS X and of course Unix/Linux software Distros.

Still, CLI continues to coexist with modern operating systems. It still remains a very integral part of Windows, Mac and Unix/Linux based systems for advanced troubleshooting purposes.

3. Graphical User Interface – GUI (1980s-)

The need to make interaction with the computer even more appealing paved way for the graphical user interface - GUI, at the end of the 20th century.

The GUI enables the user to choose commands, start programs and see lists of files and other options by pointing to pictorial representations (icons) and lists of menu items located on the desktop and within applications.

These choices can be activated with the click of the mouse, the keyboard or by use of pens/stylus.

Popular graphical user interfaces in the market today are featured in Microsoft Windows, Mac and Unix/Linux based operating systems.

The shape of the GUI has gone through transformations a number of times. Apart from the basic desktop, the taskbar, the start button, icons and windows, newer features on the desktops have evolved to tiles, apps, widgets, docks, transparent and animated wallpapers.

Graphical user interface (GUI) makes use of mouse and a graphical dispplay device
Graphical user interface (GUI) makes use of mouse and a graphical dispplay device

4. Natural User Interface – NUI (Present and Beyond)

The NUI is a type of user interface that became popular in the early years of the 21st century. The user interacts directly with the computer through natural means. The use of fingers, in particular, has eclipsed the rest, but closely followed by use of gestures and voice. Unlike command line and graphical user interfaces which depend on artificial control devices like the mouse and keyboard, NUI allows for natural, almost totally independent of artificial interaction.

With the ability to directly communicate with the computer, man has to some extent given the computer the ability to appreciate and understand human language.

Touchscreen computers accept human touch for input
Touchscreen computers accept human touch for input | Source

Touch Interface

Multitouch interface is prevalent in smartphones and tablet PCs, allowing the user to manipulate input by using more than just one finger on the screen. The user taps on an item on the screen to open it, or enlarges text page or photo by sliding fingers on the screen.

Through Microsoft Surface, a product which fuses hardware and software capabilities, more than one user can touch and manipulate digital data. Through wireless communication, MS Surface can also be used to read data and interpret commercial product placed on its screen.

What has been your favorite user interface?

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Voice Interface

Computer users now communicate directly with the computer by voice commands. Again thanks to the evolution of Kinect, voice can be used to open files, play music or even shut down the computer.

This kind of interaction gave birth to the concept of voice assistants, which is becoming a popular means of interacting with all kinds of computing devices.

Siri was the first most popular type of user interface based on voice communication. It came integrated within the iPhone 4S as beta and received gradual face-lift in the later versions of iPhone and IOS. Soon, others followed suit, and the market is now alive with many of them.

Competing operating systems for mobile have all joined in fostering the integration of voice interaction in the day to day activity of smartphone users.

Popular voice assistants today include:

  • Siri from Apple
  • Cortana from Microsoft
  • Alex from Amazon
  • Google Assistant from Google


Voice assistant makes use of microphone intergretaed within computing devices
Voice assistant makes use of microphone intergretaed within computing devices

Motion Interface

Kinect is perhaps the best example of motion related interface. It was pioneered by Microsoft in 2010.

Kinect is a sensor technology that permits use of gestures to activate responses on the computer. Waving the hand across the screen can move the cursor/pointer, or a jog in a fitness exercise can be mimicked by an avatar on the computer screen.

In addition to this, Kinect can interpret user’s physical being and environment, and is capable of facial and voice recognition. Kinect allows for seamless interaction between the user and the computer, or the Xbox 360 with which it was designed.

© 2012 Alfred Amuno

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    • amuno profile imageAUTHOR

      Alfred Amuno 

      6 years ago from Kampala

      Yes Healer, I do love the evolving trends in computing and I am always awaiting the next thing. Hope we soon use our thoughts to make things happen! Should be great. And thanks for appreciating.

    • amuno profile imageAUTHOR

      Alfred Amuno 

      6 years ago from Kampala

      Thanks Thudum. Must be great coding here and there. Yea, NUI should be taking computing to the next level, and it is interesting to see where we go next.

    • eHealer profile image

      Deborah 

      6 years ago from Las Vegas

      Great hub Amuno, it puts things in perspective through a timeline. You're a good writer, I like it! Voted Interesting.

    • tthudium profile image

      tthudium 

      6 years ago

      I love this hub. I started learning batch a few years ago. Since then, I have coded a few Minecraft Gui. I think Nui are awesome and would love to see the code of it sometime. I bet they are very difficult and confusing. Keep up the great work!

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