Code the Docs Blog

Types of User Interface: A Documentarian’s Take

By my count, there are seven major types of user interfaces (UI) that developers make and tech writers document. I have found a few lists of computer interface types, most of them paltry. None speaks from a documentarian’s point of view, but lack of coverage has never meant something is not actually important to do technical writers. We’re often just too busy writing about our products to stop and explore just how we do that.

Nevertheless, at risk of stirring up controversy, let me take a stab:

command-line interfaces (CLI)

includes multi-line editors in non-GUI systems

form-fill interfaces (FFI)

includes wizards and dialogs

graphical user interfaces (GUI)

operating systems, video games, and most other mixed-interface systems

augmented reality interfaces (AR)

screens that overlay real-world visualization with text, symbols, and interactive elements

application programming interfaces (API)

protocols and tooling for developers to interact with and extend a product or programming language, including integrated development environments (IDE) and software developer kits (SDK)

natural language user interfaces (LUI)

UIs that accept language commands, includes conversational interfaces like Siri and Alexa, as well as chatbots

virtual reality (VR)

immersive experiences intended to maximize and naturalize the interface while minimizing interference from conventional UI elements

You may be tempted to add to these top-level categories — and the Wikipedia article would encourage this — but I challenge you to help me merge and reduce, if possible.

  • Some might say FFIs are a sub-category of GUIs, but I think they’re different enough to instruct, and both so terribly common, the distinction is significant.

  • Are augmented reality and virtual reality in the same category — reality-based interfaces?

I don’t know why I find this taxonomy comforting, but it helps me to approach each type of interface with its particular attributes front of mind.

HELP WANTED
Codewriting explores the first four types of UI, each at some length. I have no experience documenting the , but I would welcome insights in appropriate places from those with relevant expertise.

Interface types are often associated with audience types. If I’m documenting a CLI, I know it’s not for my father. In fact, if my father is the product’s audience, we know a CLI is not the right interface choice. Aside from unforgiving syntax, the command line lacks visualization and only minimally abstracts underlying logic and routines. This makes the CLI a non-starter for huge swaths of less technically inclined users, as well as less frustration-inclined geeks.

While command-line interfaces are considered the most intimidating, they are by no means the most complex. In fact, the list of UI types above reflects my sense of the ascending order of potential complexity. The less burdensome the interface seems, the more open-ended it is, and thus the more complicated it would be to fully capture the range of its utilization.

Imagine the potential complexity of a natural language interface. Most limitations of Siri and Alexa are not in the interface, but in the intelligence. The range of commands such systems can already distinguish make them spectacularly open ended.

Drastically more complex than any mere language-based interface is VR, which can incorporate natural language commands, kinetic interface techniques, and eventually advanced brain and neural interfaces. One can almost imagine VR so immersive the user cannot distinguish the digital world from the natural world. Such an interface would be so intuitive, in the truest sense of that term, it would be essentially impossible to document.

Or maybe the instructions could be captured in one simple command: “Act naturally.”

This piece may wind up in the book, but it doesn’t have a home there yet. I’m copying and pasting its contents from topics/ui-types.adoc directory in my codebase, where the original awaits inclusion in other docs. It will likely get some edits before appearing in the book or elsewhere, but the state of this entry will remain as it stood appeared when originally posted.