UX is a “big tent” field; people get into it from a variety of backgrounds–but mostly three: psychology, computer science, and design. My first post on History of UX, I showed how UX goes back to Applied Psychology and the application of the study of human behavior.

But psychology isn’t as prominent a background as design, so I want to look at where design came from, in terms of the UX field.  I’d start with a definition of design, but that is tricky since, as with UX, you’ll find a lot of argument defining the thing. If UX is result of the application of a user-centered design process, I’m interested in what designers do (not what they say they do).

What are Designers?

Design comes at the problem more from the art side (or craft, more likely), than science. Most design degrees are from the college of arts:  BFA, MFA.  In general, design is more geared toward making things, for example this BFA in Industrial Design is heavy on drawing and modeling, not as much research and evaluation (Contextual Research Methods is in there though).  So in terms of the ISO 9241 HCD cycle, I can generalize that a designer works mostly in the ‘Produce design solutions’ part of the cycle:

ISO 9241 HCD cycle

Designers work here, mostly

I would say that more recently, the design field has embraced user research, like ethnography, although traditionally they distance themselves from ‘usability [testing]’–like when Tog introduced ‘Interaction Architect Designer’  to distinguish them from ‘human interface testers’.

With respect to UX, I also think it is important to look at what designers were doing before the Web.  While psychologists and human factors were working in industry, aviation, military systems (mostly); it was the industrial designers who were doing product design. How did they approach design?

  • Henry Dreyfuss, who created the iconic Bell telephone design, actually did a lot of user research and evaluation. Famously, he created a full-scale prototype of an airline interior, having people “sit in chairs for 24 hours to test their reactions. Dreyfuss took more of a scientific approach, and even included detailed anthropometric charts (‘Joe and Josephine’)  in his autobiography Designing for People, which is hard core ergonomics/human factors (but makes sense if you’re trying to build a seat to fit the 90th percentile of asses).
  • Raymond Loewy, who designed the modern world, worked more with style and aesthetics compared with Dreyfuss’ emphasis on function.  For example, a streamlined refrigerator probably isn’t needed to fight wind resistance, but damned if it doesn’t sell. He pioneered planned obsolescence, introducing yearly model changes for appliances. “The goal of design is to sell” says Loewy. “The better looking [product] will outsell the other.”
  • Dieter Rams, who designed the products which [influenced] Apple copied , would counter Loewy–introducing sustainability into design, and opposing obsolescence.  Looking at his 10 Principles for Design, he is also emphasizing user experience — products affect our person and well-being, they have to satisfy psychological and aesthetic criteria, they show respect for the user. I haven’t read a lot on his process, but did find mention Braun didn’t do customer research.

So, looking at industrial design, apart from Dreyfuss, not much consistency with methods or process–emphasis on hero design, creative process. Graphics or Communications design from the time is pretty much the same, and many industrial designers also did graphics: Loewy did logos for Shell, Exxon, and packaging for Lucky Strike. Graphic designers worked advertising and marketing, and publication.

Digital Media: The Wild West Years

With computers, graphic designers and artists were designing the fonts and icons and cases. Computer scientists were designing the early GUIs.  Tim Berners-Lee is designing a heterogeneous remote procedure call system…we’re getting close to HTML and the opening of the flood gates. But before that:

Since the mid-1980’s, Interactive Videodiscs are touted as the next big thing in education. (Filmstrips got the old heave ho.)  Instructional Systems Designers are working on the technology, applying the systems design methods and processes of human factors engineering.  IVDs give way to CD-ROMs, and multimedia designers pop up to take over–Hypercard and Director. The web is still gray backgrounds and blue hyperlinks, some inline GIFs (which were proprietary! remember the scare to scrub all GIFs from your site before CompuServe got you?! It’s interesting to watch the recent resurgence of GIFs).  Information Architects spring up to make sense of web sites.  But for designers, CDROMs are where it was at. Eventually, bandwith increases, browsers improve and standardize, and this happens:

Killer websites.

Do Ninja designers make Killer websites?

Essentially, it shows you how to take a Photoshop image, slice it up so it loads piecemeal. Add image map hyperlinks and now you have a killer website!

Here is where you get graphic designers, skilled at using tools like Photoshop, jumping into web design. The dot-com bubble was inflating, everybody was jumping into web design (though many of us too late…); CD-ROMs are out.  Flash took over the interactivity, much to the chagrin of Jakob Nielsen and everybody else looking for the ‘Skip Intro’ link. The evolution of web design has a lot to do with the evolving technology; W3C standards, browser support, CSS, javascript, cookies (to maintain state), and here is where the line between designer and developer start to blur — since everybody can use ‘View Source’ to learn the tricks of the trade, why not just build the thing?  Sometimes it’s easier just to code it than explain to a front-end developer what you want them to do.

The legacy of the early web design era remains, in UX job postings that require ‘killer Adobe CS skills’, and one of the most popular designer diversions: debating whether designers should code. Design becomes intermingled with the tools and technology.

Recently, though

Going back, to the top of the page, traditional design has focused on producing things (e.g. design solutions), more or less as an applied art.

Recently, there is a desire to position (digital) design as more than just making the thing, but considering the context of use and user. For example, more people are understanding the difference between UX and UIInteraction Design was proposed to replace web design (see above), and service design and product design are the hot new terms. The example of iPod’s success as being the device + iTunes site + licensing content from publishers–plus the rise of smartphones highlighting the need for solution beyond the traditional web page–show the desire to expand the definition beyond the thing itself, into the holistic experience and ‘customer journey’.

When you look at definitions of product design, like this from Spruce or this from Spotify; you can scream they’re just rebranding UX, but also realize this isn’t new. Digital designers have found systems design, what human factors started with decades ago. UX = systems design.

So I’ll stop screaming and focus on how we can apply the lessons of the past to now.

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