Information and Communication Technology

Customising a User Interface

Selecting user interface features and system facilities to meet needs

You may have noticed that when you use someone else's computer, it has often been personalised so that the desktop that you see is suited to the owner's requirements. The person has customised their user interface (desktop).

If you use a school or workplace computer you may find that the user interface has been fixed into a particular layout that you cannot change.

If you have your own computer, you will probably have made your own changes.

This page looks at the components that make up the user interface that you see and use in typical computer applications.

Theory or Practical

How will the knowledge of the user interface be examined?

For Edexcel's IGCSE ICT, this topic is assessed in paper 2, The Practical Examination.

Other courses may include aspects of GUIs in a written paper, so this page will cover both possibilities.

What software should I know about?

Don't worry too much about it, you just have to know common user interface features

The IGCSE ICT specification states that you should be able to use: word processing, spreadsheet, database, graphics, web authoring, presentation, audio and video editing software.

These will be dealt with in more detail in topic 23. Selection and use of appropriate software to solve a problem or perform a task.

For some suggestions on specific software, have a look at useful web sites with free ICT software and resources.

Which operating system you use does not really matter, as long as it has a GUI with a WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointers) environment. e.g. MS Windows, LINUX, MAC OS X.

Examination boards rarely specify that a specific item of software MUST be used. It would mean extra cost to students and teachers and there could be compatibility problems with existing hardware and software. There would also be the problem of making sure that everyone was using the same version of the software.

Since specific software is not required, it follows that specific questions cannot be asked in examinations. i.e. A question would not ask how a specific menu item is used in an Excel spreadsheet, but it might ask how a menu is used or require that a menu be used in a practical examination.

Interface features

Just about every user interface that you see will have some of these

You will be expected to be able to use and / or customise a range of features common to many GUIs.

These include:

The desktop

The main user interface for your computer

The desktop is what a computer user sees when they logon to their account.

With home PCs or personal laptops, the desktop may appear without a logon process.

The desktop usually displays icons, toolbars and other methods of launching an application.

The desktop on a personal computer can be customised, usually by means of selecting from a menu. e.g. system,,, preferences in LINUX, or right hand mouse click ... personalise in Windows 8.

Typically, it is possible to change items such as the background picture, the colour scheme, icon sizes, screen resolution, and the position of objects on the desktop.

On networked machines, the system administrator may restrict some or all of the customisation features. e.g. Organisations often prefer to have a logo or other distinctive graphic as the desktop background.

Networks can also allow users to have a customised desktop that will appear on whichever computer they log on to, This is known as a roaming profile.


A user interface for each application

A window is a an area of the desktop that displays some form of output. It may also allow input.

A window is usually rectangular and can be manipulated by means of the pointer or keyboard commands.

Typically a window may be:

In modern PC operating systems, windows may be opened within other windows (sub-windows) and can be tiled together, stacked on top of each other, and in some cases, be rendered semi-transparent so that underlying items may be seen.

A window may be used to display applications, messages, images, videos and numerous other items.


An icon is a small image that is used to represent an object or process.

The image is usually drawn to a standard size, such as 16x16, 24x24, 32x32, or 48x48 pixels. The file that contains the icon information will often contain several sizes of the same image so that it can be displayed at different resolutions.

An icon is often drawn using a small set of colours, 16 or 256, to keep the file size small.

Icons are usually drawn so that the image represents the object or process in some way.

When an icon is selected, an associated command will be run that will display the represented object or run the represented process.

Icons may be stand alone objects, e.g. ones that represent an application, an image or a video file. They may also occur inside other objects. e.g. the maximise and minimise icons on a window, the back button on a web browser, or the tool icons in an art package.

Stand alone Icons can usually be moved, copied and pasted, or deleted using the pointer or keyboard shortcuts. The command that runs when they are selected and other icon properties can often be accessed and changed.

Icons inside other objects often have a more restricted set of actions.

Menus and sub-menus

A menu consists of a list of options or commands that may be selected using the pointer or keyboard shortcuts. The list may be shown as text, icons, or a mixture of both.

Selecting a menu item may open a further sub-menu with more choices.

Menus are usually pull down, fly out, or pop-up.

Pull down menus are shown when the pointer moves over and is clicked on a menu header item. Although they are called pull down, they may actually be pull up from the bottom or drag out from the side.

Fly out menus are similar to pull down, except that they are shown when the pointer moves over a header item. There is no need to click.

Pop-up menus do not require a header item. They are shown when a particular action occurs, such as a right mouse click or a function key press.

Selecting an item from a menu will cause a command to be run or an object to be displayed. The command that runs when they are selected and other properties can sometimes be accessed and changed.


How most people interact with a user interface

A pointer, often called a cursor, is an icon which indicates a position on a monitor or other display device. It is normally controlled by a mouse, touch screen or other pointing device, although it may also be controlled by keyboard commands.

The pointer may be any shape or size, but is usually small and in the shape of an arrow, crosshairs, or a pointing finger.

In many cases, the pointer can be displayed with different icons, sizes, colours, or other effects to indicate what sort of actions can be performed at different locations. e.g. it may change from an arrow to a hand when it passes over a hyperlink.

The pointer has a single pixel hot spot. The position of this pixel is what is tracked by the pointer software. When a mouse button is clicked, it is the position of the hot spot that determines what action(s) are possible at that point on the display.

Dialogue boxes

Your user interface is trying to tell you something

A dialogue box is a window, usually a pop up, which allows communication between the computer and a user.

Some dialogue boxes will prevent the user from performing any further actions with the computer until the dialogue has been dealt with. These are the most intrusive form of dialogue boxes and are often security related. e.g. a logon sequence.

Some boxes will prevent the user from performing any further actions on the software that opened the dialogue until the it has been dealt with. They will however allow other software to be used. e.g. an out of paper alert from a printer may block other printing tasks from being performed until it is acknowledged.

Some boxes will be displayed but still allow other actions to be performed with the software. e.g. typing into a table in a word processor document may cause a table tools dialogue box to be displayed. The user may wish to use one of those tools, but is also free to ignore it and continue work on the document.


A toolbar is a control panel which may display buttons, icons, or other software controls.

Toolbars are typically horizontal or vertical and fixed to the edge of a screen or window.

Depending on the program, it may be possible to move or resize them, or to change their contents.

If the toolbar can be detached from the edge of the screen or window and left as a floating object, it is usually referred to as a palette instead of a toolbar.

Palettes are often found in art packages but may occur in almost any type of software.


A scrollbar is a control object which allows you to scroll up and down or side to side inside a window.

The scrollbars will appear automatically when whatever is displayed in a window is larger than the window itself.

You can see an example of a vertical scrollbar at the side of this web page. There may be a horizontal one as well, depending on your screen resolution.

Scrollbars may be customised by software writers or web page designers, but they cannot normally be changed by people using the programs or web pages.

Zoom, minimise, and maximise controls

The minimise and maximise, and close controls are found at the top left of most windows. They are not usually customisable,

Zoom controls enable the display, or part of it, to be magnified or reduced.

The zoom control is software specific. It may be found as a menu item, on a toolbar, or as part of some other control object.

Zoom controls may also be stand alone programs. These often have extra functions, such as zooming areas rather than entire screens or windows, zooming text only or images only, or remembering zoom settings for different users.

Customising facilities

Templates and Wizards

Many programs offer easy customisation by means of templates and wizards.

A template is, in most cases, a pre-defined page layout. This may be for a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database form, an art package greetings card, a web page, and many more.

With a template, the user may simply be given a basic layout to use. e.g. a blank page in a word processor is a simple template with pre-defined size, margins, fonts, etc.

Alternatively, the user may be given a much more complete page where the content can be altered to suit the user's requirements. e.g. a web authoring program may offer templates complete with colours, frames, navigation panels, and sample text and graphics.

A wizard is an interactive guide to performing an action. It usually takes the form of a series of dialogue boxes which take the user through each step needed.

Wizards are typically used for more complex, or infrequently used actions. e.g. creating a form letter or writing a complex formula in a spreadsheet.

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