A Short History of Computer User Interface Design


Daniel Rounds

April 20, 2016

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Whether it’s a laptop or a smartphone, every piece of hardware has a user interface (UI) design that tries to contribute to a great user experience. As we know, a good UI is about allowing for the smooth completion of any task and making the experience enjoyable. However the UI you see on your Apple iPhone or Windows PC has been a long time in the making. This article will take a brief look at how computer interface design has evolved over the past 40 years or so.

Batch Computing & Command Line Interfaces

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The IBM 029 Card Punch 

It all started with Batch computing when computing power didn’t exceed that of modern microwaves. The user interface of Batch computers consisted of the input of a punched card or equivalent media and apart from this operating console, humans had no interaction with these early batch computers in real time.

Complicated user interfaces were considered an unnecessary expense because the software was designed to utilize the processor to the maximum. This started to change when Command-Line Interfaces (CLIs) were introduced. CLI’s greatly reduced the latency to seconds instead of days or hours because the user interface was a series of request-response transactions that, importantly, allowed the user to change their mind about transactions in response to real time data from earlier transactions.

The next key user interface progression was the introduction of video display terminals. Having your command inputs appear on a screen and be able to reversely modify them was much faster than having them printed. It also made economic sense by removing the need for ink and printing materials.

Graphical User Interface (GUI)

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Windows 1.0 

It became clear that having a digital user interface and pointing systems equivalent to a mouse could allow for a compelling user experience. The first GUI was developed by researchers at Xerox Palo Research Center (parc) in the 1970’s and was the start of a succession of computer graphic innovations to GUI’s which has led us to where we are today.

The first system that could arguably be described as the first fully integrated desktop computer was the Xerox Star released in 1981. This led to others in the computer-science community to try and replicate similar advancements that lead to the release of machines such as the Apple Lisa Office System 1 (1983), VisiCorp Visi On (1984), and Mac OS System 1 (1984).

The Mac OS System 1 operating system had a windows based system with icons that had many features that are still used on today’s systems. Windows could be moved around the screen with the cursor, and files could be moved to different folders by dragging and dropping on the target window or icon.

The next 10 years of GUI releases started to incorporate features such as color, higher resolution displays and better processing power but the GUI design remained relatively consistent. Notable GUI releases include Amiga Workbench 1.0 (1985), Windows 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 (1985 -1990) and Mac OS System 7 (1991)

Windows 95 was a significant upgrade on earlier Windows GUI’s (Windows 1.0 didn’t even support basic features like overlapping windows for example). It was the first Windows GUI to incorporate a small close button and a resize thumb on each window. Other graphics were included but probably the most notable was the inclusion of the ‘START’ button which is still present in Windows 10 released nearly 20 years later. Mac OS X was first released in 2001 and continues to be the basis for Mac OS operating systems which, perhaps unlike Windows, has seen its GUI foundations kept relatively consistent.

Rise of the Smartphone

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Towards the end of the 2000’s computer UI design started to change significantly due to the rise in popularity of the smartphone. This huge shift in computing hardware led to designers having to rethink interfaces from scratch. Of course there were portable devices before the Apple iPhone, including laptops (obviously) and handhelds such as Amstad’s Pen Pad, US Robotics’ PalmPilot and arguably the first smartphone: the IBM Simon in 1993, which was the first to include telephone and PDA features in one device.

However, it was Apple in 2007 who perhaps came up with, until that point, the best dedicated UI for handheld devices: a sophisticated touch screen GUI with multi-touch functionality and significantly, feature functionality distributed as apps. Applications had been around since the late 1980’s on devices such as Psion Epoc with apps like a diary. However the crucial step Apple took in 2007 was to allow 3rd party developers to create Web 2.0 applications that looked and behaved just like apps built into the Phone; these could seamlessly access the iPhones services, including making a phone call and sending an email. In July 2008 Apple opened the App Store and 3 months later Google’s Android market (later renamed Google Play Store) was launched. This was the beginning of the “App Revolution” with the Windows Phone Store and Amazon app store launching in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Today’s handheld UI’s are designed around app functionality, but this trend can be seen to influence desktop and laptop UI’s as well. Windows 8 was a notable example of this. It heavily incorporated functionality similar to that of a modern smartphone or tablet but it seems that there was, and still is, a preference for the more traditional desktop UI. This was reflected in Windows 10, which kept some of the touch/app functionality but has combined it with the more familiar Start menu desktop design from previous releases.

What next?

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Gesture technology is on the way 

Computer UI’s have come a long way since textual command inputs, and indeed from the traditional computer desktop operating systems. Along with keyboards and mouse cursors, touch and voice inputs are common in both desktop and mobile devices now. Such functionality is likely to become more prevalent in the future along with other UI advancements such as gesture functionality, brain computer interfaces and augmented reality.

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