While computers have been around in some form for much longer than many of us would think, they haven’t always worked the way we have come to be familiar with—a screen with a cursor, buttons, icons, text boxes and search bars, clickable links, and more. Early computers relied on punch cards that dictated commands through a coded, hole-punched card. Later came DOS command prompts, which allowed users to type in commands. Then, came something revolutionary.
Graphical user interface, or GUI, took the world by storm in the early 1980s, when computer manufacturers began to transition to more user-friendly graphical systems. Since then, graphical user interfaces have evolved a lot—but the basic technology has remained the same for nearly 40 years. Despite its enduring popularity, it’s become clear—GUIs limit user productivity and creativity.
It’s a tech-driven world, and we’re just living in it
As technology continues to be developed and evolve, so do the ways we interact with it. Users develop new habits based on the technology at their fingertips. Once, you had to read the newspaper or turn on the television to access the weather forecast. Then the spread of computers and the internet put the weather right on your home screen when you logged online. A few years later, your cellphone would display its weather widget on the lock screen, using your GPS location to keep it updated. Now, all you have to do is ask—and your voice-activated smart speaker will read you this week’s weather forecast.
It would be practically inconceivable that you could hold a natural feeling conversation with your computer even just two decades ago. Science fiction has long played with the idea of talking computers and voice response, but it is only recently that we’ve seen progress in huge leaps and bounds towards that dream—and thanks to voice user interfaces (VUI) and artificial intelligence development, we’re seeing our own interactions with technology start to change again.
The shift from GUI to VUI
In recent years, we’ve seen the popularity of voice user interfaces explode as smartphone developers created Siri, Cortana, and Google voice assistant. Amazon got into the VUI space with their line of Alexa smart speakers, and others, like Google Home, followed suit.
But why are voice-activated devices becoming so much more popular than the traditional visual interfaces many users have known their whole lives?
The answer is simple—convenience. When learning a new recipe and covered in sticky dough, it’s much easier to say “Alexa, what’s the next step?” than to unlock your phone and scroll through a recipe. Why open an app and type in “weather forecast tomorrow in Los Angeles” when you could ask your phone, “Hey Siri, what’s the weather looking like in SF tomorrow?”
Graphic user interfaces were, at the time, an obvious next step in moving user experiences towards a more natural interaction. But we’ve reached its limits, and now we’re stepping towards another form of interaction—conversation. As humans, we primarily communicate through our language, and VUI is ready to listen to us.
When matched with the power of emotion AI, voice user interfaces can feel almost as natural as talking to another human being, and that is what sets it so far apart from clicking icons.
For so long, we’ve been tethered to the constraints of GUIs. We can click and code and build for years, but we still will be able to wring out only so much improvement. We’ve reached the point where graphical interfaces are limiting our productivity and creativity—and it’s time to change that.
Developing graphic user interfaces is a labor-intensive task, and the end product is still limiting. Users are required to learn the specific steps to complete a task in a GUI space, which means that hours are lost to training or learning the knowledge needed for a new task or program. We’re forced to work around the constraints of GUI, which slows our productivity as we navigate menu after menu of options. Our creativity is confined to what GUIs are capable of processing, and while it’s considerable still, working with a GUI limits us.
Voice user interfaces, on the other hand, are far more intuitive. Rather than having to find the visual navigating options that match what they want to do—basically doing all the extra work themselves—users declare their intent and the system organizes itself to respond by collecting data through an interactive dialog. VUIs are designed differently, and require a different style of interaction to use them, but, fortunately—humans tend to be pretty good at conversation. That’s why asking Siri for directions or telling Alexa to turn up the lights in the living room feels much easier to us than clicking or typing in a GUI to get the same results.
Technology freeing us from GUI
As discussed above, smart speakers and voice assistants are just two of the technologies that are working around the constraints of GUIs. These devices can be found in many homes, offices, purses, and pockets—practically everyone has at least one device that uses a VUI.
Apple is a company that is leading the charge when it comes to redesigning our interactions with technology. They were early adopters of touch technology for mobile devices, doing away with keys and cursors. Next, they introduced their groundbreaking voice assistant, Siri. Now, they’re continuing to change the way we interact without devices.
AirPods, the sometimes lauded, sometimes mocked, fully wireless earbuds introduced by Apple are one such example of revolutionary user interface design. Voice commands can be used to interact with Siri and control your device—all without ever taking it out of your pocket.
Another device pushing the limits of GUIs is the Apple Pencil—a wireless precision stylus that is designed to turn an iPad tablet into an unlimited-feeling sketch pad for drawing, scribbling, note-taking, designing, and more. This tool releases us of many of the constraints of a GUI, instead of letting us craft content exactly the way we want.
There’s no question that technology is rapidly evolving and our habits with it. While VUI is the latest frontier, we look forward to seeing the way it grows, and what steps developers take as we expand the limits of VUI and even move past it.