The user interface! What is it and why is it important? How people interact with and use various tools is dependent upon the interface that is provided. A good interface is so seamless that the user is unaware of the fact that the tool that they are using requires much thought.
For a computer system, the human-computer interface is "the point of interaction or communication between a computer and the human operator" (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1992). The importance of the human-computer interface cannot be overemphasized. All communication between the user of a software package and the makers of what appears on the screen must take place on a two-dimensional surface. "Escaping this flatland is the essential task of envisioning information--for all the interesting worlds that we seek to understand are inevitably and happily multivariate in nature. Not flatlands" (Tufte 1990).
This report will focus on human-computer user interfaces and, in particular, the graphical user interface or GUI-pronounced "gooey" as in "Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Gooey." Traditionally, users interfaced with their computers via a character user interface or CUI--pronounced "chewy"--by typing instructions on a keyboard. However, with a GUI, users select options from words or symbols on the computer screen by pressing buttons on a tracking device called a "mouse." This interface--the GUI-has fundamentally changed the way in which individuals work with a computer.
The heart of this report will be a review of a wide variety of GUI-based library automation software products. The reviews focus on the useability of these products and how much these products adhere to good design principles. Unless a product has changed substantially since its review in "Microcomputer-Based Automated Library Systems" (Matthews and Parker 1993), a functional review of the product is not provided in this report.
The graphical user interface is also commonly associated with client/server technology. Readers are encouraged to review a recent report about client/server issues by Richard W. Boss (Library Technology Reports, November-December 1994).
The user interface determines how the user and the computer software communicate. Everything seen on the screen and manipulated with a keyboard or a mouse is part of the user interface. For example, in the on-line catalog environment,
The salient characteristic of interface features
is that they are generally created in a layer of
software that lies between the user at the
terminal and the actual search and retrieval
mechanism of the catalog. The interface "software"
exists to translate the user's entries into search
and display commands that the catalog system can
use, and translate and formats computer results
into a form that the user can understand.
It should be possible to add, change, or remove
interface features without the basic structure of
the online catalog system. To clarify the
distinction: interface software can be modified to
change the way (or to add new ways) that the user
enters a subject, but adding subject search
capabilities where they do not already exist
requires significant structural changes beyond the
scope of the interface software. (Lawrence et al.
A slightly contrary and expanded point of view has been expressed by Yee (1991) when she argues that the human-computer interface must encompass not only the software but also the hardware and the data structures. While Yee's position that the "design of an effective human-computer interface requires an effective design of the system as a whole, including relationships and structures of the data itself" is understandable, for the purposes of this report the narrower software and hardware perspective will be used to define the human-computer interface. …