IDL allows you to construct and manipulate graphical user interfaces using widgets. Widgets (or controls, in the terminology of some development environments) are simple graphical objects such as pushbuttons or sliders that allow user interaction via a pointing device (usually a mouse) and a keyboard. This style of graphical user interaction offers many significant advantages over traditional command-line based systems.

IDL widgets are significantly easier to use than other alternatives, such as writing a C language program using the native window system graphical interface toolkit directly. IDL handles much of the low-level work involved in using such toolkits. The interpretive nature of IDL makes it easy to prototype potential user interfaces. In addition to the user interface, the author of a program written in a traditional compiled language also must implement any computational and graphical code required by the program. IDL widget programs can draw on the full computational and graphical abilities of IDL to supply these components.

The style of widgets IDL creates depends on the windowing system supported by your host computer. Unix hosts use Motif widgets, while Microsoft Windows systems use the native Windows toolkit. Although the different toolkits produce applications with a slightly different look and feel, most properly-written widget applications work on all systems without change.

IDL graphical user interfaces are constructed by combining widgets in a treelike hierarchy. Each widget has one parent widget and zero or more child widgets. There is one exception: the topmost widget in the hierarchy (called a top-level base) is always a base widget and has no parent.