Users of electronics relate to their devices through a graphic user interface, or GUI. The iPhone and iPod Touch have received a lot of accolades for their revolutionary user interface. Some users buy their phones based largely on the user interface. Whether your computer runs Windows, Linux or Macintosh, most of your interaction with your computer is through the graphic user interface (desktop).

When an operating system is upgraded, the most noticed features involve the GUI. Apple is famous for their GUI. Microsoft has for years been playing catch-up with Apple over the user interface. Linux users are flocking to Ubuntu, primarily due to its friendly and functional user interface. We have recently seen new releases of Mac’s OS X, Windows 7 and Ubuntu 9.10, all of which focused on a better experience for the user by improvements to the GUI.

At the same time many of us “geeks” continue to complain about the number of “clueless users”, computer owners who don’t understand much about their computer beyond the user interface. It’s a situation akin to the car owner who knows how to drive the car but has no idea what goes on under the hood, no clue as to how to add oil or change the filters. People who mistake the desktop for their computer or AOL for the internet are the stock of many in-jokes in the IT world. Many of us who have worked help desks shake our heads at the stories we’ve heard. We think it’s a shame that more people aren’t interested in the inner workings of their computers or that more don’t take an interest in the amazing things a user can accomplish from the command line.

I suspect that in the interest of making computers “user friendly” we’ve created a situation in which people don’t have to learn much about their own computers. GUIs are so easy to navigate there’s hardly a need to delve further into commands, scripts and other advanced functions.

Even when the effort is made to get users to think more about their computer’s functioning it’s often unappreciated. With Windows Vista Microsoft introduced the User Account Control (UAC), an effort to alert users when a program or website attempted to make changes to their system. The unintended result was that either users disabled UAC altogether or became jaded and clicked “approve” without reading the content of the warning. This attempt to create more aware users failed, so much so that in Windows 7 Microsoft grants us the ability to restrict the UAC notices that pop up.

Many computer users want to be just that, users. They have no interest in knowing why things happen on their computers, they just want them to work the way they need them to work. The inability of legacy apps to run on newer systems, their inability to make their 1999 printer work with their 2009 operating system simply frustrates them as there’s no “fix this problem” icon on the desktop. It’s doubly frustrating to those of us who try to help them by explaining why the system is failing them. They don’t want to know, they just want it to work.

Maybe if GUIs were a bit less intuitive, maybe if computer interfaces required their user to understand a bit more about why problems occur and what can be done to remedy them we’d have fewer “clueless users”.

Of course there would also be less need for us geeks.