The Future of User Experience, Part One: The Past of User Experience
Apr 22, 2014
I started thinking about what I wanted to write in this post a several days ago. I was wrestling with the idea of exploring the future of user experience design, but I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, so I started my journey into the future by studying the past. I’m a firm believer that a solid grasp of where you came from is the best foundation upon which to predict where you’re going. In fact, I’m going to separate this post into two parts: past and future. First, it’s back in time we go. It’ll be fun and interesting, promise.
I found an American mechanical engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor, born during the second industrial revolution. I immediately felt a connection to Fred because we both were born in the middle of a global technological revolution. And, we are both interested in how to optimize the use of that new technology. Fred wrote a book called The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. He argued that work should enable the employer and the employee to both achieve optimal prosperity. To do this, the employee must be able to perform to the best of their abilities. So, optimizations must be made to the tools they use. Fred was a meticulous observer. He would study workers’ jobs by breaking them down into little pieces of time and observing their actions moment by moment. In one study he found that workers who had to shovel materials could improve their output just by changing the weight of the shovel. When the weight of a full shovel equaled around 21 1/2 pounds, the work was optimal for the employee and the employer. This was a brilliant approach to efficiency in design in its own right, but the story gets better still. Let’s go to Russia and the First Conference on Scientific Organization of Labour, ten years later in 1921.
Vladimir Bekhterev was a neurologist who became known as the Father of Objective Psychology. Vlad argued that designing tools for optimal efficiency was only a partial solution to the problem of labor. He added:
“The ultimate ideal of the labor problem is not in it, but is in such organization of the labor process that would yield a maximum of efficiency coupled with a minimum of health hazards, absence of fatigue and a guarantee of the sound health and all round personal development of the working people.”
Ah-ha! Now health, personal development and general wellbeing are parts of the equation. This gave rise to the idea that optimizing an experience is more beneficial than optimizing any of its parts.
Fast forward to just a couple years after the cessation of World War II. Paul Fitts (the same guy who penned Fitts’ Law) discovered a link between the design of the controls in an aircraft cockpit and instrument-reading errors that sometimes lead to pilot fatalities. Fitts’ conclusions were revelatory. He explained that designers could reduce user errors through research on human requirements. Now things are starting to take shape. Fred and Vlad helped us focus on the user experience as a whole, but now Paul has given us new wisdom. The design of an experience should be directly influenced by extensive research on the user’s needs.
Let’s skip ahead about 25 or 30 years to the 1970’s. An idea known as Cooperative Design (later relabeled Participatory Design) was spreading throughout Scandinavia. The idea was simple: the design process should involve everyone affected by it. Everyone from end-users to those who commissioned the design. It’s likely that the idea naturally arose after the 1960’s because of a sense of citizen unrest. Citizens of popular cities felt that city planners didn’t consider them in design initiatives.
What we know today as user experience design emerged from three historical milestones. It began with an interest in efficiency of work. It expanded by taking interest in the physical and emotional well being of the user. And it matured by introducing a research-driven design process that includes all relevant stakeholders.
Designers continue apply these founding principles to new technology today. Simply put, user experience design is about creating the best experience for users. Which can only be done by developing a sincere and complete understanding of the challenges users face. It’s been that way since the ideas of Fred, Vlad, Paul and the Scandinavians started to materialize into a legitimate design discipline about 50 years ago. No matter where technology takes us in the future, it is these basic principles that will continue to thrive.
Stay tuned for part two: a look into the future of user experience design.