What is IUI?

IUI is an acronym for ‘Intelligent User Interfaces’. This is not really anything new. As a concept, it’s been around for more than 20 years, but given all the recent advances in Machine Learning / A.I. it’s become increasingly possible to improve the experiences we design for people by applying some computational intelligence.

I think the name says it all, User Interfaces that are intelligent, but I wanted to see if I could find a really good definition. One of the first results in Google comes to us from Wolfgang Wahlster, who is Computer Science Professor in Germany. He defines IUI as:

Intelligent user interfaces (IUIs) are human-machine interfaces that aim to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and naturalness of human-machine interaction by representing, reasoning, and acting on models of the user, domain, task, discourse, and media (e.g., graphics, natural language, gesture).

Wolfgang Wahlster

I really like several parts of that:

  1. He starts with calling out Human-machine interfaces. We’re building something for humans, for people. Love that he starts with people first!! That is the right orientation! I like the word Human better than User, also.
  2. He identifies goals for IUI – to improve the efficiency, effectiveness… of interactions. Those seem like good goals to me! We’re trying to make life better for people.
  3. Finally, he calls out how to achieve it… reasoning, and acting on models of the user, domain, task, etc. We’re going to have the computer do some work for people. Cool!

One of the other top results from Google is the IUI page on Wikipedia. I was a little less impressed by this explanation of IUI, but it’s simple:

An intelligent user interface is a user interface that involves some aspect of artificial intelligence (AI or computational intelligence)…


What made the Wikipedia explanation so interesting was that they went on to include an example of IUI, and the example they cited, was… Clippy!

…there are many modern examples of IUIs, the most famous (or infamous) being the Microsoft Office Assistant, whose most recognizable agentive representation was called “Clippy”


If you aren’t old enough to recall clippy, I’ll put a link at the bottom of this post to a good article on it. Basically it was a little animated paper clip that appeared when you used Microsoft Office Applications and he would offer to help you do things.

Let me hit pause on Clippy for a second…

One of the reasons I wanted to get a good definition for IUI is that being able to define it enables us to determine if something is actually IUI or not.

If you look at how the Wikipedia article defines IUI, then yes, Clippy is an example of it. However, I’m not sure that it really made life more effective or efficient for people, as Professor Wahlster calls out. Regardless of how successful Clippy was, though, it was an interesting idea to try and with all the amazing advances in Natural Language Processing, we have today, a modern version of Clippy could be pretty powerful in helping people writing more compelling & influential documents, as one example. There are plenty of companies that are in the Natural Language Generation business (like Narrative Science, Automated Insight, etc) so we know machines are capable of writing like humans and that capability is only going to get better over time.

Returning to our definition… we have a basic overview of IUI: it’s about making life easier / better for people by applying AI to user interfaces. We’ll go ahead and offer a definition of IUI as:

Improving the acumen, acuity, and productivity of people by applying computational intelligence to experience design.

There is a great quote by William James that I think of when the subject of AI comes up:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automation, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

William James

There was a bit more to that quote, and his point was really about creating habits to reduce our daily cognitive load… but I love the quote nonetheless and think it fits here pretty well. This is really one of the promises of IUI, to reduce cognitive load when people are using technology.

On the off chance that you’re new to IUI, there is actually an annual ACM Conference on the Topic of IUI, and it’s entering its 24th year!

The tagline for the conference is GREAT: “Where HCI meets A.I.”

OMG! That is great! Instead of stealing it, which I thought seriously about, I’m going to tweak it a bit… my tagline is: Improving HCI by Applying AI.

As with most ACM conferences, it’s fairly technical and academic, so I don’t recommend it for most people. If you aren’t able to make it, no worries, I’ll be providing some great coverage of the event here. If you are going, let me know, I’d love to meet you!

In addition to covering conferences, like IUI, some other things I’ll be covering here will include examples of IUI in the real world, ideas I have, design principle, IUI Patterns, interviews and some general articles of interest. Hope you find it useful!

If you have question, a topic you want covered, or an example of IUI that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it!

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