Here I start to discuss one of the issues that got me writing on UX in the first place. Having been in the field quite a while, I get peeved reading about how UX is a new (or relatively new) field. Here’s one ignorant ‘history’ discussion, for example. They’d have it that UX started in the 90s, around the time CSS showed up, or when Don Norman coined the phrase.

Now, it has gotten better in the last year or two; I’ve seen more thought going into the history of the field, like this piece.  But there is a lot more to it than Taylor and Dreyfuss, or the Memex and Xerox PARC.

I consider design in the broad sense defined by Tim Brown of IDEO — a human-centered approach to problem solvingI’ve always considered myself a problem solver, not a pixel pusher.  Taking this view, there is a history of solving (human) problems, going back to the early 1900s (I guess it’s still relatively new). As the years go on, new specializations have appeared to focus on new technologies and work domains, building on what went before.

Let me introduce my thesis and I’ll explore each of these in more detail in later posts.

Roots of UX
My ‘spirograph’ model of UX

There are a bunch of these ‘spirograph’ visualizations of UX design, here’s mine.

Applied Psychology uses psychological principles and theories to solve problems.  Psychology is the study of human behavior, so mostly this is a discipline that solves human problems. It applies lessons learned from research-focused subfields like cognitive, sensory-perception, social, developmental, etc. to practical issues.

Many of the ‘new’ histories of UX cite Taylorism and scientific management as the precursor to modern UX, but it was really Frank and Lillian Gilbreth; who were more concerned with human welfare than Taylor (who saw workers as part of the machinery, really). Lillian Gilbreth wrote the first dissertation in Industrial Psychology.

Human Factors emerged during World War II, when it became clear that many complicated weapon systems were engineered beyond the capacity of humans to operate them, even after applying the best industrial/organizational psychology to select and train the operators. Many of the pioneers of HF came from applied psychology, notably Paul Fitts (who wrote the law still followed in UX design today) who was the first president of APA’s Division 21.  Engineering psychology/HF is concerned with fitting the technology to human capabilities, more so than broader AP which strives to improve the individual’s ability to operate in technological society. Though HF has roots in psychology, you’ll see many academic programs in the Industrial Engineering departments.

With advent of computers, and the computer science discipline, Human Computer Interaction emerged as its own field. The early years involved a lot of overlap with Human Factors Engineering (the SIG-CHI conference is still titled Human Factors in Computing Systems), but the fields diverged, as Jonathan Grudin has written in several informative articles.  Famously, the hippie ‘homebrew computer club’ guys didn’t appreciate the military origins of human factors, or workin’ for the man.

From there, you can go through the sub-specialization of Usability Engineering, which addressed problems with software projects; to Information Architecture which solved the problem of CEOs designing their websites with their org charts; down to Interaction Design, which wanted to distance itself from “the testers”. This is also where the industrial and graphic design fields jump into the fray, where they define the history back to Henry Dreyfuss (who was defining and applying anthropometrics and ergonomics).

User Experience Design (although used by Norman in the mid 90s at Apple) seems to be the new term to incorporate these specialties.

And now, you’ll see people creating new terms: service design, product design, etc. — since these specialty descriptions has become too constricting to what we do. But if you take a step up, consider we are still solving human problems, regardless of the domain.

Next up is Part 2: The Designers.

History of UX, Part 1

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