Given a Choice, Users Still Prefer 'Classic' Graphical User Interfaces

Posted on by Robert Moskowitz

survey of Linux users shows that attempts to improve upon early, well-designed user interfaces are falling flat on their faces. Users like what they have right now on their computer screens and don't want any so-called "improvements" that force them to do, among other things, more clicking.

TouchscreenThese early graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are not easily defined. However, they generally include a single screen from which to trigger most or all computer functions, a menu structure to provide access to individual commands or capabilities, and a variety of applets and/or icons by means of which the individual user can customize both the view and the access to computer commands.

Modern interfaces tend to leave this simplicity behind in favor of new approaches that omit some of the classical features and/or transform them so drastically they are essentially unrecognizable.

Certainly, more modern graphical user interfaces have their proponents and adherents. But they remain far less popular than the classics.

One reason often put forward for this appreciation and loyalty is the "intuitive" nature of classical GUIs. Yet one person's "intuitive" GUI is another person's horror show. For example, is the upper right or the lower left corner of the display the more "intuitive" position at which to trigger the computer's main menu?

But aside from whether or not classical GUIs' designs are more "intuitive" than their modern rivals, one can identify several advantages that may account for their continuing popularity:

  1. Classical GUIs tend to make excellent use of limited screen real estate, particularly on laptops. In comparative testing, most users can accomplish almost any computerized task with fewer keystrokes and mouse-clicks on a classical GUI than on today's more "advanced" alternative interfaces.
    Designers of modern interfaces have often buried administrative tasks rather deeply in their menu structures. Users may be asked to trigger a secondary screen to get to the command they seek. Classical interfaces allow users to accomplish almost any task with just two or three clicks, in total.
  2. Classical GUIs are designed for general utility. They require little user expertise and easily support almost any strategy or approach to completing a computerized task. More modern GUIs have "benefited" from extensive analysis of the "best way" to accomplish each computer task and so tend to force users to execute computer commands in a certain sequence. They resist most user exploration, customization, and quirky preferences. As a result, some users find the new approaches highly efficient, but many others don't.
    Think of the difference between a Swiss army knife and a highly specialized tool. The specialized tool may be great for a specific task, but the Swiss army knife offers pretty good functionality for almost any work you want to do.
  3. Classical GUIs support extensive customization. Novices are OK with the basic menu and command structure of Classical GUIs, but as they become more experienced, they like to find shortcuts and simplified sequences that let them accomplish their work more quickly and easily. Linux users, in particular, are notorious for tweaking their interfaces to suit their own habits and preferences.
    Modern interfaces, however, are far less accepting of reconfiguration. If you don't like the way the interface design group has laid things out for you, you're, in a sense, out of luck.

At bottom, classical GUIs are appreciated for their ability to graphically represent complex data. That's why IT security professionals tend to favor graphical dashboards that can show, for example, a dynamic chart of server exploit attacks or sources of phishing email attempts. Because modern GUIs can be more easily manipulated and reconfigured by users, however, IT security professionals are growing increasingly interested in interfaces that allow them to drill down and determine more details about the biggest security threats of the moment.

In a nutshell, the continuing preference for classical GUIs among general users may well represent the continuing triumph of computer users' indomitable spirit of independence and self-sufficiency over attempts to impose a straitjacket of corporate control.

Robert Moskowitz

, New Mobility Partnerships

security awareness professional development & workforce

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