User Experience History: More than 100 years of amazing wonders

User Experience History: Apple First Computer

Table of Contents

User Experience History is as fascinating as the evolution of culture and technology in the 20th century, as it accompanied or even led such evolution!

In times where UXD is more common, some people forgot that UXD is not just UI, but much more than that! And it existed long before computers!

Here you’ll find a humble attempt to cover the most important milestones of User Experience History. Hope you like it!

Although it is a relatively new term and discipline for most people, User Experience Design (UXD) is a discipline that is more than a century old (although, of course, it did not have that name, which only appeared between 1996 and 1998).

What follows is a brief overview of the milestones that make up this discipline.

I hope you enjoy it, and share it with your friends!

User Experience History: It all started with Ergonomics and Psychology

Many of the methods that we know and use today in User Experience Design have their roots in the first studies of Ergonomics and Human Factors. These studies began near the beginning of the 20th century and had a strong influence until the Second World War inclusive.

Similarly, the different fields of experimental psychology played a preponderant role.

Especially those fields anchored in learning theories and the cognitive and behavioral branches of psychology.

These initial studies and experiments were the foundations for what we now commonly accept as research methods with users.

This timeline lists several key events, people, and publications that have shaped the history and, fundamentally, the future of our discipline:


1911: Scientific Research Opens New Gates

The Principles of Scientific Management

Frederick Taylor publishes Principles of Scientific Management describing time and motion studies and methods to improve industrial efficiency.

User Experience History: Alfredo Palacios

Around the same time, Dr. Alfredo Palacios (best known for his political work in Argentina) began his first studies on the effects of working conditions and places on workers. He created his own measuring devices that are now in the Museum of Experimental Psychology of the University of Buenos Aires*

(*Dorve Factoid: Dr Mariana Arismendi, PHD, was in charge of that museum some years ago)


1916: Usability at Work: Easier and Faster!

Frank Gilbreth and Lillian Moller cut work down into smaller steps and are pioneers in making work quicker and easier, from masonry construction to clerical work. They applied this method during World War I by showing soldiers how to assemble and disassemble weapons in the dark.

1919: Bauhaus is born. And so does Graphic and Industrial Design!

Walter Gropius founds the Bauhaus, which would lay the foundation for the professions of graphic and industrial designers. One of his maxims was “form follows function”, which pre-announces usability-based design. User Experience History won’t be the same after this!

1936: The First Time Usability is Used as Selling Point in Adevertisement

First ad using usability as selling point

The Palm Beach Post publishes an announcement for a new Frigidaire highlighting usability as one of its features.

1936: The revolution of computers starts

The Turing Machine:

One of the biggest developments in human history

Alan Turing develops what became known as the Turing Machine, a computational model that would change history, given that it is neither more nor less than the theoretical definition of the first computer (which Turing would also develop), and also the fundamental basis of what today we know as Artificial Intelligence.

1943: First steps of Ergonomics and Human Factors

Alphonse Chapanis, a lieutenant in the US Army, who would later become one of the fathers of the Ergonomics and Human Factors discipline, demonstrates that “pilot error” can be greatly reduced with a most intuitive arrangement of the airplane controls.

Le Corbusier creates the Modulor, an anthropometric scale designed to create most suitable spaces for people. This development is today honored on the 10 Swiss franc note

1947: Karlin and Usability Research at Bell Labs

John E Karlin, an industrial psychologist who worked at Bell Labs, is appointed head of the new Department of User Preferences (later renamed the Department of Human Factors) where he would help refine the modern number dialing system and telephone keypad that we still use today in day.

He carried out a famous study to find out how AT&T could make the telephone cables shorter: At night he entered the laboratories’ offices and shortened the telephone cables until staff members called technical support personnel to complain about that its cables were too short.

1948: Human Interaction and Technology as First Steps of HCI (Human Computer Interaction)

After the Second World War, Japan is semi-destroyed and its companies dedicated to economic, social and human reconstruction. In this context, Toyota sought the opinion of all its employees.

Toyota workers: Human Interaction and Technology
Post WW2 Toyota workers at the factory. Credit: Toyota Motor Corporation

The contributions of the workers gathered in assembly were valued almost as much as the technologies used by the company, and immediately put into practice.

Toyota’s spectacular success and growth as a result of this process caused many companies to begin to pay attention to the role of human interaction with technology.

1950: The Turing Test

Again Alan Turing with a discovery that would change User Experience History as well as mankind’s history: the famous Turing Test, the basis of Artificial Intelligence and intelligent machines.

it is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior similar to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Alan Turing proposed that a human evaluate natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate responses similar to those of a human. The evaluator would know that one of the members of the conversation is a machine and all the participants would be separated from others. Conversation would be limited to a text-only medium such as a computer keyboard and monitor, making the machine’s ability to transform text into speech irrelevant.

Alan Turing, The Turing Test

As of today, conversational interfaces (such as Siri, Cortana, and others) are still trying to pass the Turing Test without success.

1954: Fitt’s Law and the Fundaments of User Interface and Physical Product Design

Paul Fitts publishes an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that describes a mathematical model used to predict the time it takes to move from one target to another based on its size and distance. This is what we know today as Fitts Law, a fundamental rule for all those designers of user interfaces and physical products.

1954: User Experience Design (UXD) and Usability’s Cornerstone

Designing for People: User Experience and Usability.
Image: LiGo blog http://www.ligo.co.uk/blog/dreyfuss-500-phone-paved-way-user-centred-design/

Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss writes “Designing for People”, one of the classic texts for User Experience and Usability.

From this book come concepts that are now standard in UX, such as:

When the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, the industrial designer has failed.

On the other hand, if people become safer, more comfortable, more eager to buy, more efficient – or just happier – by contact with the product, then the designer has been successful.

Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People, 1955

1955: The Principles of Product Design

Dieter Rams and the
10 Principles of Good Design

Dieter Rams, perhaps one of the most influential designers in history, begins working at the German company Braun.

His work was copied many times, the most famous being the almost verbatim copy / tribute series that Apple used for its various products.

In the late 1960s, he would write the “10 Principles of Good Design”. While originally made for product and industrial design, it became a paradigm for graphic design and user interface design as well.

All good design …

  • It is innovative
  • Provides utility to each product
  • It is aesthetic
  • Makes an understandable product
  • It is discreet
  • Is honest
  • Has anachronistically lasting value
  • Thoroughly conceive down to the last detail
  • Respect the environment
  • It is designed in its absolute minimum expression

As you can see, one of the most important set of rules in User Experience History, still used nowadays!

1956: UX Research and Behavioral Psychology

Cognitive psychologist George Miller coins the phrase “the magic number seven plus or minus two” in an article published in the Psychological Review Journal.

It reports a variety of experimental results that indicate that humans have trouble keeping more than five to nine items (chunks) simultaneously in working memory. This is what is known today as Miller’s Law, one of the best known and most cited laws in cognitive and behavioral psychology.

1957: Human Factors and Ergonomics Get a Home

Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Logo

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society is formed, an international entity that brings together specialists in Ergonomics and Human Factors.

1967: Fundamental Usability Research Methodologies

Micheal Scriven writes about formative and summative assessments in educational literature applied to student learning and assessment. These terms will later apply to different types of usability assessments.

1969: Xerox starts the GUI (Graphical User Interface) Revolution

XEROX PARC: You’re reading this article because of all their inventions!

One of the biggest milestones in User Experience History: Xerox company creates XEROX PARC, a research and development unit that would develop some of the greatest and most important inventions that we still use today.

The list includes the mouse, object-oriented programming, laser printing, Ethernet networks, user interfaces, personal computers, copiers, printers and much more. (In the note Why the cursor is tilted and has a “tail”? I show documentation about the first cursor and the patent of the first mouse)

1979: Usability and UX and new scientific methodologies

Permanent labs in companies like IBM perform what we would now call summative usability testing.

The first scientific publication appears with the word usability in its title, “The commercial impact of usability in interactive systems” by John Bennett.

1980: Think Aloud and OZ Paradigm

Ericson and Simon publish “Verbal Reports as Data” that focuses on the use of the Think Aloud method that would later come to dominate usability testing.

Alphonse Chapanis student Jeff Kelley is credited with coining the term “Oz paradigm” which is now referred to as the “Wizard of Oz Method”, one of the most widely used methods in usability testing in controlled environments.

1981: Usability Testing Becomes Formative

Alphonse Chapanis and colleagues publish “Tutorials for the First-Time Computer User” which describes usability as a more formative than summative activity. They suggested that observing between five and six users using the system will reveal most of the problems in a usability test.

1982: Human Computer Interaction is Officially Born!

Clayton Lewis publishes an IBM technical report using Herb Simon’s “Thinking Aloud” method in Cognitive Interface Design.

acm-sigchi logo for Human Computer Interaction

In Gaithersburg, Maryland professionals interested in human-computer interaction (HCI) are meeting for the first time. The conference is jointly funded by the Society of Human Factors and the Computer Machinery Association (ACM). Later that year, ACM forms a subgroup called the Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

Personally, as a Master in HCI, I consider this my personal milestone in User Experience History!

1983: Human Computer Interaction grows bigger!

The Psychology of Human Computer Interaction is published by researchers in the Carnegie Mellon and Xerox PARC labs Stuart Card, Thomas Moran, and Allen Newell. This seminal book explains GOMS and Keystroke Level Modeling based on the previous work of Taylor, Fitts, and Gilbreth.

1984: Steve Jobs and the Mac, and the first guidelines for UID (User Interface Design)

By w: User: Grm wnr – Modifications of Image: Macintosh 128k.jpg and w: Image: Macintosh 128k No Text.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php? curid = 519781

On January 24, 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer during the Super Bowl, proving that usability and ease of use sell, even when the price is high.

Smith and Moser publish their extensive study “GUIDELINES FOR DESIGNING USER INTERFACE SOFTWARE”, which consists of 997 guides that apply to different types of software.

The book The Human Factor by Harry Hersh and Dick Rubinstein, both from Digital Equipment Corporation, is published. It is the first description of human-computer interaction in a book.

1985: Usability, Testing and Iterative Design Are the New Standards

J. Gould and Clayton Lewis publish the influential article “Designing for Usability: Key Principles and What Designers Think.” which emphasizes an early and continuous focus on users, as well as empirical measurement and iterative design.

1986: System Usability Scale (SUS)

John Brooke of Digital Equipment Corporation creates a “quick questionnaire” to assess the usability of the software. The System Usability Scale (SUS) has become the most widely used questionnaire for evaluating the usability of a system.

1987: The Golden Rules of Interface Design

Interface design gets its own systematic rules

Ben Shneiderman publishes Designing the User Interface, which includes the famous 8 golden rules of interface design, which are the basis of heuristic evaluation of modern computer systems. They are summarized in:

  • Strive for consistency.
  • Enable frequent users to use shortcuts.
  • Offer informative feedback
  • Design dialog to yield closure
  • Offer simple error handling.
  • Permit easy reversal of actions.
  • Support internal locus of control.
  • RReduce short-term memory load.

Heads up!

This is the first part of User Experience History! We’ll continue in a further post, so make sure to come back soon!

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Disclaimer: This content was translated to English from the original we wrote in Spanish, available in UXpañol

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