Range of Uses & Devices

We’ve seen a range of types of user interfaces in previous lessons and their pros and cons. However, what types of devices will make use of these different types of interfaces?

Each type of interface has its own uses and suits different types of digital device. Of course, many digital devices will use multiple types of interface for different purposes.

In this lesson, we’ll learn about the user interfaces used for:

  1. Computers, handheld devices and entertainment systems
  2. Domestic appliances, controlling devices and embedded systems

1. Computers, Handeld Devices & Entertainment Systems

End-User Devices

Computers, handheld devices and entertainment systems are all types of digital devices that we use all the time in our work and personal lives. They are used by all sorts of people, from all different backgrounds. This means that for many of us it is really important they have an intuitive and easy-to-use user interface.


By computers, what we mean here are the desktop and laptop personal computers that we use at home and in school. The most common type of user interface used on these devices is a graphical user interface, which is the user interface used by all modern PC operating systems.

This is because most users of personal computers are not technical IT users and so need a simple and intuitive user interface, but need the flexibility still given by a GUI.

Some software applications will use different types of interfaces though. As we learnt previously, programs like Command Prompt use a text-based interface and this is popular with technical users performing tasks like network admin.

The fact that these types of devices all use a keyboard makes using a text-based interface possible, whereas it wouldn’t be on devices like tablets and smartphones which don’t have keyboards.

Handheld Devices

Handheld devices include smartphones, tablets and e-readers. It can also include laptops, though we’ve talked about that in the “Computers” section above.

Most of these devices also use a graphical user interface, just like personal computers. The only difference being that they don’t use the “Pointer” part of a WIMP interface, because your finger is the pointer (as they use a touch screen).

However, smartphones & tablets will also commonly use other types of interfaces. For example:

  • Sensor Interface – an ambient light sensor is used to alter screen brightness automatically.
  • Speech Interface – voice commands can often control the smartphone & tablet, such as asking it to plan directions in a route-planning app, asking it to phone someone, or starting up a music playing app.

E-readers will often make use of a menu interface, as they might not have the processing & memory capabilities for a complex graphical user interface. Instead, it will be a simpler interface with menu options to choose which book you want to read.

Entertainment Systems

Entertainment systems include games consoles and home theatre systems (such as your Smart TV). These types of devices will most typically use a menu-based interface.

For example, your games console once started will often display a list of options, such as different games you have installed, or to alter settings or browse an e-store to buy more games. Your Smart TV will similarly offer options for the apps you have installed on the TV, like Netflix & Disney+. If you’re watching Live TV it also often has a menu showing all the channels and what they’re currently showing.

Further Thought

Are there any other types of interface used on your games console or smart tv? What about a speech interface? How might that be used?

2. Domestic Appliances, Controlling Devices & Embedded Systems

Domestic appliances, controlling devices and embedded systems all typically have a single or small set of functions and very limited input and output methods. They also often have little processing power and memory. This makes it important that the user interfaces they use are simple.

Domestic Appliances

Domestic appliances are devices we use for cooking, cleaning & such forth. For example, this can include air conditioners, dishwashers, tumble dryers, freezers, washing machines and microwave ovens. These types of devices use a variety of user interfaces.

Your air conditioner, dishwasher, tumble dryer, washing machine and microwave oven all make use of menu-based interfaces to allow you to choose different settings. Such as setting the temperature of the air conditioner, or the type of cycle to use on the washing machine.

We also commonly see sensors used in many domestic appliances, such as air conditioners and freezers, which will use temperature sensors to detect whether to turn up or down the heat.

Controlling Devices

By controlling devices, we’re referring to devices that will automatically perform some function, such as controlling the temperature of a room. Two examples of this are security lights and central heating systems.

Security lights and central heating systems will use sensor interfaces. The security light might detect motion to know when to turn on the security light. The central heating system will use a temperature to know when to turn on the radiators.

Embedded Systems

An embedded system is a computer system that is built into another device. For example, electronic parking meters, traffic lights, vending machines, smartwatches and robotic vacuum cleaners.

These types of devices are very varied and so use a range of user interfaces, for example:

  • Electronic parking meters might use a sensor interface to read your number plate when you enter and leave for accurate billing.
  • Traffic lights will use pressure sensors to detect how many people have passed through the lights to know when to change colour.
  • Robotic vacuum cleaners will use a sensor to detect boundaries in a room so it can move around the room independently.

Many embedded systems, make heavy use of menu-based interfaces. These types of devices often only want to perform a limited number of functions, and only have simple inputs too that wouldn’t allow for text-based interfaces or controlling a mouse on a GUI.

For example, electronic parking meters and vending machines may use a menu-based interface to allow users to easily select from a number of options, such as choosing how long you want to park for, or what drink you want to buy. Smartwatches also often use a menu-based interface to control the functions, as the screen size is too limited for a full GUI.

Further Thought

What other types of embedded systems can you think of and what user interface do you think they use? Remember, it could be more than one.

Lesson Summary

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

  • Computers, like desktops and laptops, typically use a graphical user interface. Some software use different interfaces though, such as command prompt using a text-based interface.
  • Handheld devices also commonly use graphical user interfaces. However, they’ll often use other interfaces, such as a sensor interface and speech interface.
  • Entertainment systems most commonly use a menu interface. They can often use speech interfaces too.
  • Domestic appliances will often use sensor interfaces, such as a fridge monitoring temperature to decide if it needs to cool down. They also use menu interfaces, such as a menu to select a cycle on a washing machine.
  • Controlling devices most commonly use sensor interfaces, so they can control things like lights turning on based on sensor input.
  • Embedded systems use sensor interfaces, such as robotic vacuum cleaners using sensors to move around a room. They also use menu interfaces, such as electronic parking meters to allow you to pay for a parking ticket.