Why we still have the point and click GUI

Posted on Sun 11 July 2010 in software.


TechRadar have an article about “Point and click GUIs: why are we still stuck with them?“, bemoaning the lack of innovation in the software interfaces we all use daily. Since the 80’s computer GUIs have been based on files, taskbars, menus and windows, manipulated by a mouse and keyboard.

My defence of point and click GUIs? They are an adequate fit for the majority of computer based tasks.

You’ll note the caveats adequate fit and majority in that sentence. It isn’t best fit to train surgeons in keyhole surgery, or for running automated tasks or better immersion in driving or flying simulation games. It also wouldn’t be practical for use with a mobile devices or single purpose machines (ATMs, information points, ticket machines etc.).

The point and click GUI with a mouse and keyboard is the best fit for what most people use their computers for; manipulating files whilst sat at a desk.

For example, imagine organising your physical photo collection. You’d collect the photos together based on a criteria like location, time, people in the photo etc. You’d then place this collection in a pile or folder, suitably labelled, adding or removing from piles as you went along, until you were happy about the collections.

This is the same as you’d do on your computer with a digital collection; select the photos you want, make a folder or open a new window, move/copy them across, label the folder and repeat until finished. Instead of physical piles of photos, you have windows with them in; instead of physically picking up the photos and moving them, you click and select with the mouse.

It’s the same thought process in both instances, just executed differently.

The article mentions touch screens and the iPad specifically as better for read only use of files, and in these circumstances, I agree. However, as also mentioned in the article, touchscreens aren’t good for “data input or content creation … [or] heavy-duty desktop computing”. They aren’t an adequate fit for the majority of tasks. They are a specialised interface for a limited set of (mostly) well defined tasks. The point and click GUI is at least adequate for browsing the web; typing on an iPad is so bad you can get a keyboard for it.

Just as a humorous illustration, suppose the author had been talking about doors. We haven’t changed the basic premise of the door in hundreds of years; they mostly require us to exert a force on one edge either via a handle or push plate, to rotate along the opposite edge on a set of pin hinges in order to move a lump of material from a hole in a wall. I mean, sure we’ve got alternate door types for specialised situations (sliding doors, airlocks, revolving doors) but I’m bored of pushing material out of the way.

The reason we aren’t clamouring for a revolution in door design? The current design works fine, thanks.

The reason there hasn’t been a revolution in UI design away from point and click GUIs? The current design works fine, thanks.