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Point of Friction: On the History of UX Design

Pegah Ahmadi

User Experience Design has its roots in the ancient science of ergonomics, which tried to establish a set of principles that made work more convenient and efficient. The connection between ergonomics and labor survived into present times. In 1900, Winslow Taylor pioneered the modern optimization of work based on his research of the interaction between workers and their tools (probably the first example of a systematic UX research in history).

Early 1900s: Taylorism and the Industrial Revolution
UX design can be dated back to the early 1900s when people like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford were working on revolutionizing human labor. They were both focusing on ways to make workers’ efforts more efficient and productive. Frederick Winslow Taylor did a significant amount of research in this area became known as the father of Scientific Management, aka Taylorism. A mechanical engineer and one of the first management consultants, Taylor authored "The Principles of Scientific Management," a widely influential study of engineering efficiency. Along with Henry Ford’s pioneering mass-production techniques, Taylor and his supporters shaped an early vision of what interactions between laborers and their tools should be like. This aimed for designing devices and apparatuses in a way that would align with human capabilities. This new designing idea evolved all the way to Taylorism and the Industrial Revolution, where industrial efficiency came hand in hand with human ingenuity in order to increase the efficiency of companies. 

1948: Toyota and the humanizing of the production system
Meanwhile, in post-war Japan, shortages and cashflow problems forced industries to develop just-in-time manufacturing. Industrial efficiency and human ingenuity struck a more harmonious relationship at places like Toyota. Two important principles any modern product manager will recognize were implemented by Toyota: Kaizen – improving business continuously while always driving for innovation and evolution and Genchi Genbutsu – going to the source to find facts to make correct decisions. The Toyota Production System continued to value efficiency, but treated workers as key contributors to a continually improving process. One of the core tenets of the Toyota philosophy was “respect for people,” and it resulted in involving workers in troubleshooting and optimizing the processes they were a part of. For example, workers at Toyota factories could pull a rope called the Andon Cord to stop the assembly line and give feedback if they saw a defect or a way to improve the process. The roaring success that Toyota experienced as a result brought new attention to the role of human interaction with technology. 

1955: Dreyfuss’ “Designing for People”
Later on that century, based on Henry Dreyfuss’s “Designing for People” text, companies were trying to understand their users’ needs, an integral principal in UX design until today. In this book, Dreyfuss writes, “when the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the [designer] has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”

1966: Disney and the role of joy
Walt Disney was an incredibly imaginative and dare I say — even magical person — with a childlike spirit and a perceptive mind for the future. He described the idea that would later become Disney World as: “always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people.” In building out the Disney theme parks, Walt Disney and his design team (which he called Imagineers) established many best practices that user experience designers can follow as well. Here are some of them:

Make special moments: Disney and his team had a sharp focus on creating a unique experience that guests could not have anywhere else. This focus on making as many special moments as possible resulted in happy customers. 

Always be plussing: Disney was never completely satisfied. He always asked for more, always pushed his team to bring more to the table. He called this "plussing," incrementally improving details and elements of an experience. It wasn't "adding more stuff"—which so many companies do—it was making a good experience better.

Give customers options: Walt didn't design one different locale with the original Disneyland. He made four of them, each with a different theme and different experiences. By doing so he was able to appeal to more people.

1970s: PARC and the design of personal computers
Many early wins in the design of computers for human use came from PARC, a Xerox research center founded in the early 1970s to explore innovations in workplace technology. PARC’s work in the mid-70s produced many user interface conventions that are still used today—the graphical user interface (GUI), the mouse, and computer-generated bitmap graphics. For example, PARC’s work greatly influenced the first commercially available graphical user interface: the Apple Macintosh. 

1995: Don Norman, the first user experience professional
An electrical engineer and cognitive scientist by trade, Don Norman joined Apple to help with the research and design of its upcoming line of human-centered products. He asked to be called "User Experience Architect," marking the first use of the term in a job title. By this time Don Norman had also written his classic book, "The Design of Everyday Things," which championed design for usability and functionality rather than aesthetics. It remains hugely influential to designers today. 

2007: the iPhone
Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at MacWorld 2007, calling it a "leapfrog product" that promised to be far easier to use than any other smartphone on the market. Not only did it deliver on its promise, but it changed the landscape of mobile devices forever, catapulting Apple into its current position as one of the world’s most successful companies. The genius of the original iPhone, arguably, lay in its fusion of superior hardware and software to provide connectivity through a revolutionary capacitive touchscreen, making the physical keyboards of other phones obsolete. Put more simply, it provided a user experience far superior to that of any other contemporary phone. This inadvertently led to the current business focus on user experience. If Apple’s emphasis on delivering great user experiences was winning market success and critical accolades, others wanted in on it too.

Pegah Ahmadi

is an Iranian multidisciplinary designer based in Chicago. She not only has explored the boundaries of various disciplines in design but also that of several countries. Shortly after she started her professional life as a furniture designer in 2005 she began teaching design foundation at university of applied science and technology in Tehran. In 2011 she taught a poster workshop in Baskent university in Turkey where she had a chance to explore cultural differences and similarities in design. Currently Pegah works in Morningstar Inc. headquarter designing print an digital publications. Pegah has received her second master degree in graphic design from Basel school of design in Switzerland and her first master degree in industrial design from university of Art in Iran.  pgh.ahmadi@gmail.com

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