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NOVEMBER 6, 2018

Conversational User Interfaces: A Brief History of UIs

Georgios Lekkas

Innovation Director

Reading time: 2 min


The very first generation of user interfaces was based on character-based text: symbols entered in computer consoles, through punch card readers and teletype terminals. The DOS or UNIX command line was a technical evolution that did not change the fundamental concept of the user interface. Users had to have a good knowledge of the precise syntax to use and to execute any command. We’ll call this first generation UI, terminal-typing interface.

Today only a minority of computer specialists or the operators of legacy software, still use computer terminals. The dominant paradigm for human-machine interaction for the last 30 years has been that of graphical user interfaces (GUIs). GUIs used visual representations of objects resembling their real-world counterparts: files, programs and actions (drawer, floppy disk, scissors, etc.) GUIs took advantage of mental models people had already formed, and thus made it much easier for users to interact with machines.


These second generation Graphical User Interfaces became gradually able to perform very complex tasks, that required users to manipulate many elements whose location and meaning was often not clear. In the mid 1990’s the field of User eXperience (UX) was created as an evolution of the Human-Computer Interaction discipline. UX aimed to make graphical user interfaces simpler, more intuitive and understandable.

Conversational Interfaces at work in smartphones.

In the same period starting from the 90’s, mobile devices with limited capabilities acquired texting capabilities, and short messages (SMS) could be used for example, to enable or disable services, know about the weather, etc. These services were beneficial since they were accessible on-the-go, but still required users to know the exact syntax of commands to execute. In this they resembled the 1st generation terminal-typing interfaces.


The third generation conversational user interfaces evolved from the established habits of billions of users messaging each other. These UIs started with computer systems exchanging text messages with their users. In this they resemble first generation UIs, but they do not require the user to know the exact commands.

Definition: A Conversational Interface is a hybrid UI that interacts with users combining chat, voice or any other natural language interface with graphical UI elements like buttons, images, menus, videos, etc.

When humans interact with machines or other human agents, using natural language, systems prove more helpful and forgiving on user errors. They may make suggestions and understand nuances or special terms. They may carry on long, multi-threaded dialogues.


These characteristics are particularly appealing to humans, since language is a powerful, effective communication technology that evolved through thousands of years. We can observe how in the beginning of UI technology, humans had to adapt to computers, while now we try to make computers adapt more and more to humans.

The shift is from a pull-based model to a push-based model, where things come to us.
Conversation interaction can occur through text on mobile phones, but also through voice, smart TVs or any other devices.

These computer-based virtual assistants are called Bots and can be general-purpose assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Amy, or built for specific tasks.


In the next installment of this series about bots, we’ll see because all such history is now having an effect in the world of digitalized Wealth Management. We started from afar, but we’ll be zeroing on pretty material details rather quickly.