This article was contributed by Jacob Davis who works as data analyst and strategist for various clients in the Israeli startup tech space.
If you're of a certain age, you might remember computer monitors that were deeper than they were wide, had a screen about 12” across the diagonal, but had a casing around them about the size of a large microwave oven, and they weighed about the same. The screen would display only green text, composed of characters representing commands the user typed in.
You would interact with the screen by typing in long commands like ‘list files' or ‘copy file'; then receiving a text-based output in return – such as ‘examplefile.txt copied to clipboard'. Such screens also offered menu-driven interfaces, with a list of options that you could select by typing in a number or letter.
To say these text-based interfaces were not user-friendly would be the understatement of the year. To copy/paste a file into a separate directory might require a stiff drink and nerves of steel! As a result, people had to possess certain technical knowledge and experience to use any computer.
Consequently, ordinary ‘non-technical' people could not really use computers on a practical level until the development of the graphical interface; first appearing on Apple computer's ‘Lisa' in 1983. The term graphical interface has now been assigned the acronym GUI, for Graphical User Interface.
Undeniably, without the continuing development and ease of use of GUIs, we would be nowhere near the level of digital adoption that exists today in contemporary society. In short, the easier computers become to use, the quicker more and more people adopt new technologies.
What's under the hood in a typical GUI?
The central aspect of the GUI is that it uses icons and visual elements rather than typed text commands. These icons represent the features and functions of the software or device upon which that software is running. Obviously, in order to ‘select' and activate these icons, a mouse, trackpad, or, more latterly, a touchscreen is required. Other features might offer the ability to use multiple windows or ‘desktops' to access various programs and files, with visual effects and animations enhancing the experience.
The evolution of GUIs and their impact on digital adoption
Modern GUIs are much more complex than their early predecessors while remaining simple to use – they include a wide range of visual elements, such as scroll bars, sliders, multi-touch gesture support via track pads, and virtual reality interfaces. Nowadays, if you want to zoom in and out of a photo on a phone screen, iPad or laptop, you only need to tap the screen or trackpad and move your thumb and index finger together or apart.
Modern GUIs are customizable and allow users to personalize their experience according to their preferences. For example, look at the ‘accessibility' options on an iPhone or Android device; there are dozens of ways of controlling screen brightness, color, contrast, icon size, thickness of scroll bars, required speed of taps, and gestures; the list of customizable features is almost endless.
Another advantage of contemporary GUIs is their consistency of appearance across varying devices. Nowadays, when the GUI of a given version of macOS is set at ‘factory default', it will appear just the same on a 13” MacBook Air as a 27” iMac. You can even now use a GUI to set the appearance and nature of apps within an operating system itself, at a system-wide level, not just on one particular program.
All this accessibility, consistency, and general user-friendly operation has aided enhanced digital adoption in domestic and business use environments. Imagine where we'd be if choosing a movie on Netflix involved you having to type ‘Find: Movie / Beverly Hills Cop/' on your TV remote control. It would probably be quicker to walk to the nearest movie theater! Clearly, this rate of digital adoption through enhanced GUIs has also had a direct and proportional impact on how we do business in today's world. Let's examine this a little further:
The current state of graphical interfaces in enterprise technology
GUIs are used daily in all levels of business software from email, good old MS Word, and now in the most advanced enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and customer relationship management (CRM) software platforms. Many of these packages are now provided as SaaS (Software as a Service) with web-based interfaces, which allow easy access by work-from-home (WFH) employees or geographically scattered workforces across multiple office locations.
Enterprise software GUIs are now customizable, allowing companies to change interfaces to suit their workflows. Advanced features such as data visualization and reporting tools, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) integration provide advanced analytics dashboards. More recently, there is a growing trend of using natural language conversational interfaces such as voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant in enterprise technology, along with ChatBots, allowing users to interact with software hands-free. But if things are that advanced now, what of the future?
Look to the future now, it's only just begun…
Not only voice activation but virtual and augmented reality technologies (VR and AR, respectively) are already changing how we interact with software. Anyone who has seen the movie “Minority Report”, where Tom Cruise opens files from a holographic screen and then throws them away into the ether with a flick of a forearm, can see where things are headed.
It won't be long before this becomes a reality. However, some people think it's all gone too far and are craving the return to ‘retro' technology; but that will not stop the march of progress. You won't need goggles and a headset to enter the metaverse, it will just beam into your office, where you can walk through virtual holographic shelves full of historical accounts and say: “Find me the sales figures for Q3 1996…” and there they are, you'll leaf through them with finger gestures in thin air as if you'd flick through pages of an imaginary magazine.
As ML and AI continue to evolve, GUIs will become increasingly hyper-personalized. As soon as anyone sits in front of a screen, retina recognition will log on the user, and the GUI will appear exactly how they set it up the last time they used that particular device. The utility of personalized GUIs on shared workstations and hot-desking environments becomes obvious.
Salesforce – a case in point
One example of a successful enterprise technology implementation that has leveraged GUIs to drive digital adoption is Salesforce, the cloud-based CRM system whereby organizations manage their sales, customer service, and marketing activities.
One of the reasons for Salesforce's popularity is its user-friendly, intuitive GUI, with drag-and-drop capabilities and visual data representation dashboards containing graphs and charts that allow managers to analyze and understand data quickly. Salesforce also allows the integration of apps, for example, ‘Salesforce Einstein', which can be integrated with other enterprise systems to aid marketing automation and financial management.
Undoubtedly, the more user-friendly GUIs become, the more people will adopt new software. Nowadays, we take this for granted. But go ask your Grandpa if he ever used a computer before the early 1980s. Listen to him carefully. Then count your blessings.
About the author
Jacob Davis is a data analyst and strategist who has worked as a freelancer in the Israeli startup tech space for the last decade, such as ScrapeZone.com. Jacob specializes in turning unstructured alternative data into actionable decision-making. His passion is uncovering stories and trends in the digital space and turning data into stories.