3. The history of UI design: from command lines to GUIs
The command line in MS-DOS 6.0. (It stands for Microsoft Disk Operating System—and is what PC user interfaces looked like before the introduction of Windows in 1985!)
Thirty years ago, user interfaces on PCs were typically driven by a command line, like in MS-DOS (pictured above). This could be a very efficient user interface—but the user had to actively learn how to interact with it, because specific commands had to be typed in using the correct syntax.
Here’s an example of a simple MS-DOS command, which would list the contents of the current folder:
But commands with lots of options required the user to remember all the “toggles” that went with the command, and select them correctly, usually without any prompts to help. For example, this one would add two file attributes to the file called “autoexec.bat”, and make the file read-only and hidden:
C:\>attrib +r +h autoexec.bat
Boring, right? As a result, command-line interfaces were usually the preserve of computer enthusiasts, IT professionals, and people who were compelled to use them in their jobs. Command lines were certainly not most people’s idea of fun, and unsurprisingly home computers did not take off in the MS-DOS era. Command lines were an effective user interface for some functions, but offered a poor experience for the general user.
Xerox Star (1981)
To move away from command lines, a number of tech companies developed the first “graphical user interfaces”, or GUIs. The Xerox Star (1981) was the first mass-market device to have a UI based around on-screen windows. Apple followed it with the Macintosh in 1984, and Microsoft with Windows in 1985.
Apple Macintosh (1984, and it still looks familiar) & Windows 1.0 (1985, and it doesn’t).
During the 1990s and 2000s, significant advances were made in desktop UI design. These changes were driven by the increasing importance of computers and other interactive technologies, both at work and in the home.
Although Windows retains its capacity to baffle the average user, Microsoft’s series of Windows releases (95, 98, XP, Windows 7, Windows 10) nevertheless incorporate significant advances in interface design.
Apple followed a similar path of UI advancement through successive releases of Mac OS. In contrast with Windows, though, Mac OS retained significant continuity of appearance and interaction principles from one version to the next. (How users experience the changes between versions of a product is itself an area of UX and UI design that is often overlooked—and indeed is the cause of much of the criticism that traditionally follows a new release.)
The decade since the release of the iPhone in 2007 has been marked by an increasing focus on the UI of smartphones and tablets, and the distinct needs of their users. Apple’s iOS, and Google’s Android (which uses UI principles modeled on the company’s Material Design guidelines) are advanced GUIs that stand at the end of almost 40 years of user interface development.
Check out Part 2!
In the second installment of this article, we discuss what UI design means today, explore some case studies, and offer some pointers to further resources.