Further User Interfaces

Last lesson, we learnt what user interfaces are. They are the means by which a person is able to interact with a computer system. We also learnt about two different types of user interface, the text-based interface and speech, or natural language, interface.

These are just two types of user interface though. There are many others that we may use in our personal and work lives.

In this lesson, we’ll learn about:

  1. Graphical User Interfaces
  2. Sensor Interfaces
  3. Menu/Form Interfaces

1. Graphical User Interfaces

A graphical user interface, or GUI (pronounced Gooey), is the type of interface that you and I most commonly use on a daily basis. It is often also known as a WIMP interface. WIMP stands for Windows, Icons, Menus & Pointers.

You see, a graphical user interface makes use of images to provide a visual display of what you are interacting with on the computer. These images are normally organised into:

  • Windows – a interface item that separates different programs.
  • Icons – a graphic that when clicked on runs a program or takes you to a folder or file.
  • Menus – a list of actions grouped together to allow you quickly run them.
  • Pointers – a representation of the users point of control (i.e. where they have moved the mouse).

We can see an example of this type of interface in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: a Windows 10 user interface showing a settings window.

One area where graphical user interfaces slightly differ is in mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets. These use a GUI, but of course, we don’t have an on-screen pointer, because our finger is the pointer.

Advantages

  • A graphical user interface is intuitive for most users. This makes it a good interface for beginners and won’t require extensive training to learn how to use it.
  • We can have multiple windows on screen allowing for us to see multiple programs and move data between them easily, such as dragging & dropping or copy & pasting text from one Word document to another.

Disadvantages

  • A GUI is typically much more memory & processor intensive than other types of interfaces. The graphics that make up the interface are stored in memory and must be processed to display them correctly.
  • Performing tasks often involves navigating through several windows which can be time consuming. This might compare to other interfaces, such as a text-based interface which might perform the task in one simple command.

Despite some of these disadvantages, as the interface is so much easier and more intuitive than alternative interfaces it has become the de-facto interface for most modern computer systems, such as your desktop, laptop, smartphone & tablet.

The disadvantage of it being processor & memory intensive is not as much an issue in modern computers that have powerful processors and lots of memory, and the fact it can be slower than a text-based interface only is true if you know the commands, which most computer users don’t.

Further Thought

Which operating systems (e.g. Mac OSX and Windows) with a graphical user interface have you used? Consider what is similar between them and what is different.

2. Sensor Interfaces

A sensor is a device that reads physical data, such as the temperature. With a sensor interface, a computing device will use sensors that read this physical data and then perform actions based on the information it gathers.

A simple example of this might be your home central heating system. You might set it so that the temperature is 22o. The central heating system will monitor the room temperate using a sensor and will automatically turn on or off your heating based on what temperature the sensor reads.

It’s not just temperature sensors though, sensors could detect light, sound, rainfall, window speed, pressure, motion and much more.

Advantages

  • We can constantly monitor for changes in the environment so that actions can be performed in response much quicker and more accurately.
  • There is no human interaction required, the actions are performed automatically based on readings, making it more efficient and less subject to human error.

Disadvantages

  • This type of interface can only be used for specific, limited functionality. You couldn’t use it for writing a report or working out your taxes. Just for simple cause & effect actions.
  • Sensor interfaces require specialist equipment to setup and this can often be quite expensive.

While this type of interface has only very limited purposes, we do see them used all the time and this is increasing as many “smart home” devices rely on this type of interface. For example, your smart central heating, home security and lighting systems. They’re also used in hospitals a lot for monitoring patients, such as their heart rate and oxygen levels.

Further Thought

Other than hospitals, what other types of industry would make a lot of use of sensors? What types of sensor do they use and why are they so important?

3. Menu/Form Interfaces

This type of user interface presents the user with a menu that contains a list of options. The user navigates through various sub-menus by choosing the relevant option in order to perform the function they want.

You can see this type of user interface used in many self-service kiosks. For example, cash machines at the bank and self-service tills at the supermarket both commonly use menu-based interfaces. Many fast-food restaurants also have self-service kiosks that use menu-based interfaces to choose your meal.

These examples we’ve talked about are all also typically graphical interfaces. However, we can have text-based and speech-based menu interfaces. You might have called a businesses phone line and been told:

  1. Press 1 for sales
  2. Press 2 for customer support
  3. Press 3 for anything else

This is also a menu-based interfaced.

Advantages

  • This is a very easy-to-use interface. The simplicity of the interface, with limited possible actions & clear options, makes it very user-friendly.
  • The interface is very easily adapted to different users. In particular, it is easy to translate into various languages and the options can be spoken rather than just being visual.

Disadvantages

  • A menu-based interface can be very frustrating for users if there are a lot of different levels of sub-menus as this can take a long time to navigate.
  • Options are limited, so more complex actions cannot be performed and if the required option is not available then you will not be able to complete your task.

So, as we’ve seen, a menu-based interface is really simple to follow, but really can only be used for a small number of simple functions. This is why the most common place we see menu-based interfaces is in these self-service kiosks, such as those on a cash machine, or the self-service machine at a fast-food restaurant.

Further Thought

Where else might you see a menu-based interface? Can you think of another type of kiosk? Or perhaps a home entertainment device?

Lesson Summary

So to summarise what we’ve learnt in this lesson:

  • A graphical user interface makes use of images to provide a visual display of what you are interacting with on the computer. It’s also known as a WIMP interface.
  • It is easy to use and is easy to move data between applications.
  • It uses a lot of processing power, memory & storage. It can also be slow to complete tasks for experienced users.
  • A sensor interface will read physical data and then perform actions based on the information it gathers.
  • It can constantly monitor for changes in the environment and automatically perform actions based on readings.
  • It can only be used for a specific, limited number of functions and is often quite expensive to install.
  • A menu driven interface presents the user with a menu with a list of options. This is used in self-service kiosks such as ATMs.
  • This is very easy to use and easily adapted to different users.
  • It can be frustrating to complete tasks if there are many levels of sub-menus and has limited functionality.
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