What is a user interface?

Glossary What is a user interface?

What is a user interface?

A user interface (UI) is the point of communication between a person and a machine. It’s what you see, hear, say, and touch in order to give instructions to a device or receive information back from it.

User interfaces dictate how people interact with devices and software, like mobile apps. They’re designed to maximize accessibility, provide a user-friendly experience, and ultimately help drive conversions.

In the past, user interfaces were basic, and consisted solely of on-screen buttons and simple menus that were controlled via a keypad, mouse or keyboard. Today, new technologies mean UIs can be tapped, swiped, spoken to, or even gestured toward. Developments like these enable marketers and app developers to create greater experiences, capture new data points in order to better understand audiences, and analyze interactions, behaviors, and habits within apps.

What makes up a user interface?

User interfaces are made up of many components, and they depend on the type of UI (more on UI types below), the users, and the end goal. While these factors will vary, what remains consistent is the requirement to give users the best experience.

The list of elements that make up a user interface is ever-evolving, particularly in the world of mobile apps, with breakthroughs and adaptations in technology, like voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI), but here we’ll cover the basics of what forms a UI.

  • Input components: Anything you use to initiate an interaction

    Menu buttons, checkboxes, dropdown lists, free text fields, radio buttons, and anything you can tap or swipe.

  • Navigational components: The elements used to move around an environment

    A progress bar, breadcrumbs, and search boxes.

  • Graphics and visuals: The components that form the basis for the UI

    Windows, transitions, menus, icons, text, fonts, images, color palettes, layout, and any other signposting.

  • Feedback: How the UI communicates back to the user

    Text boxes/messages, color changes, sound prompts, virtual assistants, and haptic feedback.

What are the different types of user interface?

A variety of user interfaces exist to complement the different devices we encounter on a daily basis.

Ever withdrawn money from an ATM? Was it a touchscreen? Did it beep when you typed in your PIN? Did the card slot flash when it dispensed your cash? That’s an example of a well-thought-out UI.

Some UIs, particularly on mobile, can even be adaptable depending on how they’re being used. Music apps like Spotify will switch to a stripped back, clutter-free, big-buttoned design when connected to a car stereo to allow easier interaction.

A list of different user interface types

Graphical user interface

The type of user interface you’re likely to have the most experience with is a graphical user interface (GUI). GUIs are found on screens like smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. They use icons, menus, window panels, and buttons to help you control what you want to do. Depending on the device you’re using, graphical user interfaces typically receive input from your keyboard, mouse, stylus or fingers.

Most desktop and laptop computers are considered to use graphical user interface components, but a growing number of brands now offer touchscreen technology, too. While it may be possible to interact with a computer via touchscreen, it’s on mobile devices where this UI really performs.

Touch user interface

Touch user interfaces (TUIs) are specifically designed for interaction with touchscreen devices, but not exclusively smartphones. They need to allow clean user input while considering screen size, spacing, legibility, and accessibility. Other places you’ll find touch screen interfaces include some ATMs, in-car entertainment systems, and portable GPS devices.

Though the UI on your smartphone is made up of TUI and GUI elements, it actually has its very own UI term—MUI, or mobile user interface.

Mobile user interface

Mobile user interfaces (MUIs) have TUI components at their core, but build on them to create a dedicated UI that better considers screen size, battery life and processing power (think of MUIs as a subcategory of TUIs). Where you’ll find graphical user interfaces on multiple devices, mobile user interfaces are found exclusively on smartphones.

While MUIs must factor in accessibility, lightning-quick responses and ever-changing screen sizes, they can make the most of the unique features they get to share living within a smartphone, like near field communication, GPS, and biometrics to provide a more fluid user experience.

Voice user interface

Voice user interfaces (VUIs) remove the need for physical contact and let you engage with a device by speaking. VUIs have become more commonplace in recent years, thanks to advancements in natural language processing (a computer’s ability to understand and respond to a human’s spoken command).

You’ll find voice user interfaces within smartphones and smart speakers, both of which carry virtual assistants to respond to queries, like Apple’s Siri, the Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa. Being able to interact with a device without physical touch or the need to be within view of a screen means voice user interfaces are very accessible. This makes them popular within in-car entertainment and navigation systems, as well as in smart homes, where users can speak to their devices to trigger events, like controlling thermostats or lighting.

Gesture-based interface

Gesture-based interfaces (GBIs) rely on movement to control and interact with a device. Using motion sensors or cameras, GBIs look for cues from physical movements, like a flicked wrist, nodding head or moving console controller.

Gesture-based interfaces are popular as they provide an intuitive way to engage with technology, making them popular interfaces in the world of gaming. Often viewed as a futuristic and advanced way to control computers and machines, the technology has been in the mainstream for a number of years, most notably alongside the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. Almost 20 years later, and with advancements in virtual and augmented reality, as well as artificial intelligence, gesture-based interfaces can offer fully immersive gaming experiences with natural movements, rather than relying on a traditional keyboard or controller for input.

Why is a good mobile user interface important?

Whatever the device, the goal of a user interface should be the same—to not just take users from A to B, but to enable an enjoyable, accessible and logical experience along the way. These factors are particularly critical in the world of mobile, where users can flit between apps in a heartbeat if they’re not kept engaged—or if they’re made to jump through unnecessary hoops.

Over time, mobile users develop preferences for brands, operating systems, and apps, largely dictated by their in-app experiences (sort of like brand loyalty). This is less about them completing levels, finding particular information, or winning prizes, and more about how they feel while using the app—was it easy to access? Was the information presented logically? Did they have a positive experience in the app?

Poor user interface versus good user interface model

Humans are creatures of habit and they warm to familiarity—it’s the reason iPhone users rarely jump ship to an Android device, and vice versa. Whether you’re Team Apple or Team Android, the fundamentals of a good user interface are the same—it’s the execution of these principles that can improve brand loyalty, user stickiness and customer retention.

How to make a good mobile UI

Keep it simple, accessible, intuitive and user-friendly

You must prioritize the user and think about inclusive design as well as mental and physical states. Many people relax with their smartphones, but they were built to be used on the move. Consider this when thinking about user expectations and goals in relation to your mobile app or game. Think about layouts, pathways and visual aids from their point of view – where are they likely to be when using your app; are they multi-tasking; what’s their mindset; do you have their complete attention; have they come for a challenge or to unwind?

Make it visually appealing

The visual side of an app’s UI is as key as its logo and app icon. A visually appealing UI can keep users engaged and enhance their experience, eventually becoming a recognisable part of the brand. Good visuals can keep users onside when the task at hand is less stimulating, e.g. filling in an app’s registration form. Be wary of excessive design elements that distract or slow down journeys—remember, it’s unlikely yours is the only app of its kind, so you want to avoid losing users to competitor apps because they feel overwhelmed. Strike a balance between aesthetics and functionality. Try to avoid clutter and keep journeys simple.

Be consistent and efficient

Consistency and familiarity—within interactivity, visuals, and content (think in-app graphics as well as terminology)—help users to move confidently through an interface. The quicker they can become familiar with their UI surroundings, the quicker they can complete their goals and nurture a relationship with the associated brand or app. Keep the number of steps required relevant to the outcome—users won’t want to jump through hoops to start reading content they can get elsewhere, but they may be willing to fill out a form and part with some of their data in exchange for a free trial of a new mobile game.

Like all areas of design, subjectivity plays a big part in putting together a solid user interface. Great UIs are built iteratively and rely on testing, learning and tweaking to create a space that enables users to enjoy a stress-free experience with their devices.

Little changes to a mobile app’s user interface can make a big difference to retention, revenue and customer satisfaction. With Adjust’s Measure and Analyze solutions, you can get to grips with granular insights to pinpoint the campaigns, creatives, and multi-channel marketing efforts that are delivering your best users. Request a demo to learn more.

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