Let’s start from the basics! You are probably very familiar with graphical user interfaces already. You can find them on your phone, computer, and most interactive electronic devices. In fact, you are most likely reading this book using one!

At their essence, graphical user interfaces are applications that display some information graphically to a user. This user can then choose to interact with the application—normally using some kind of device; like a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen.

Interface displays, user interacts

The user interactions may cause the application to update and display new information as a result, which in turn may cause further user interactions, which in turn cause further updates… And so on. This quick feedback loop is what causes the feeling of interactivity.

Note: In this book, we will refer to graphical user interfaces as GUIs, UIs, user interfaces, or simply interfaces. Technically, not all interfaces are graphical nor user-oriented; but, given the context of this book, we will use all of these terms interchangeably.

Dissecting an Interface

Since we are interested in creating user interfaces, let’s take a closer look at them. We will start with a very simple one: the classical counter interface. What is it made of?

A classical counter interface

As we can clearly see, this interface has three visibly distinct elements: two buttons with a number in between. We refer to these visibly distinct elements of a user interface as widgets or elements.

Some widgets may be interactive, like a button. In the counter interface, the buttons can be used to trigger certain interactions. Specifically, the button at the top can be used to increment the counter value, while the button at the bottom can be used to decrement it.

We can also say that user interfaces are stateful—there is some state that persists between interactions. The counter interface displays a number representing the counter value. The number displayed will change depending on the amount of times we press the buttons. Pressing the increment button once will result in a different displayed value compared to pressing it twice.

A dissected counter interface

The GUI Trinity

Our quick dissection has successfully identified three foundational ideas in a user interface:

  • Widgets — the distinct visual elements of an interface.
  • Interactions — the actions that may be triggered by some widgets.
  • State — the underlying condition or information of an interface.

These ideas are connected to each other, forming another feedback loop!

Widgets produce interactions when a user interacts with them. These interactions then change the state of the interface. The changed state propagates and dictates the new widgets that must be displayed. These new widgets may then produce new interactions, which can change the state again… And so on.

The GUI trinity

These ideas and their connections make up the fundamental architecture of a user interface. Therefore, creating a user interface must inevitably consist in defining these widgets, interactions, and state; as well as the connections between them.

Different Ideas, Different Nature

The three foundational ideas of an interface differ quite a bit when it comes to reusability.

The state and the interactions of an interface are very specific to the application and its purpose. If I tell you that I have an interface with a numeric value and increment and decrement interactions, you will very easily guess I am talking about a counter interface.

However, if I tell you I have an interface with two buttons and a number… It’s quite trickier for you to guess the kind of interface I am talking about. It could be anything!

This is because widgets are generally very generic and, therefore, more reusable. Most interfaces display a combination of familiar widgets—like buttons and numbers. In fact, users expect familiar widgets to always behave a certain way. If they don’t behave properly, the interface will be unintuitive and have poor user experience.

While widgets are generally very reusable; the specific widget configuration dictated by the application state and its interactions is very application-specific. A button is generic; but a button that has a “+” label and causes a value increment when pressed is very specific.

All of this means that, when we are creating a specific user interface, we don’t want to focus on implementing every familiar widget and its behavior. Instead, we want to leverage widgets as reusable building blocks—independent of our application and provided by some library—while placing our focus on the application-specific parts of the fundamental architecture: state, interactions, how the interactions change the state, and how the state dictates the widgets.

The application-specific parts of a GUI

The Elm Architecture

It turns out that the four application-specific parts of the architecture of an interface are also the four foundational ideas of The Elm Architecture.

The Elm Architecture is a pattern for architecting interactive programs that emerges naturally in Elm, a delightful purely functional programming language for reliable web applications.

Patterns and ideas that emerge in purely functional programming languages tend to work very well in Rust because they leverage immutability and referential transparency—both very desirable properties that not only make code easy to reason about, but also play nicely with the borrow checker.

Furthermore, The Elm Architecture not only emerges naturally in Elm, but also when simply dissecting user interfaces and formalizing their inner workings; like we just did in this chapter.

The Elm Architecture uses a different—if not more precise—nomenclature for its fundamental parts:

  • Model — the state of the application.
  • Messages — the interactions of the application.
  • Update logic — how the messages change the state.
  • View logic — how the state dictates the widgets.

These are different names, but they point to the same exact fundamental ideas we have already discovered and, therefore, can be used interchangeably.

The Elm Architecture

Note: In iced, the names state and messages are used more often than model and interactions, respectively.