Where Did the Term “User Experience” Come From?

Almost everything you do in life—the purchases you make, the restaurants you eat in, the parks you explore, the cars you drive, the apps you download—is a user experience. How you interpret an experience as a person (a user) shapes the likelihood of you returning to that restaurant, purchasing that vehicle, or using the application.

By this definition, user experience is everywhere. However, the term “user experience” as we know it is typically associated with the digital design discipline. User experience design is the practice of intentionally designing a website, application or interaction so that the user has a positive experience and achieves the desired outcome with ease. It is a combination of psychology, engineering, and classic design and web design principles alike.

Ideally, the user experience is designed to be void of frustration and delays, it’s seamless and effortless, and the user understands what to do and how to get to where they want to go.

The First User Experience Designer

Before user experience design there was “user-centered design.”

The term first appeared in acclaimed UX design expert Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things, which was first published in 1988. It marked a shift from the previous term “user centered system design” where instead of focusing on the system itself and the aesthetics of the interface, Norman concentrated on the needs of the user.

It wasn’t until the early 90s when Norman joined Apple Computer first as a fellow and then as a “user experience architect” that the identifier made its way into a job title.

In an interview with Adaptive Path, Norman said:

“I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose it’s meaning.”

Norman would go on to become the Vice President of Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group (known as Apple Research Labs at the time) before joining Hewlett-Packard. In 1998, he formed the Nielsen Norman Group alongside Jakob Nielsen, another pioneer of usability methods that remain widely used today, including the 10 Usability Heuristics.

Both men remain active in continuing to move the practice of user experience design forward and advocate for the practice of user-centered design. Nielsen remains a principal of the Nielsen Norman Group and continues to study user experience best practices, including the recent Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience.

At 81, Don Norman remains a fellow as well but also holds the position of founder and director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. Throughout his career, he has also been instrumental in the study of related disciplines and is considered a father of cognitive engineering as well.

Designing for People First

Putting people first came along well before the Internet. Fast Co. Design explored the rich history in detail and noted instances of user experience occurring as far back as 1430, when Leonardo di Vinci (considered one of the first technologists) invented a way to transport food using conveyer belts. The method was a mess (the conveyer belts were erratic and ended up causing more problems than good), but it set in motion an exploration of the relationship between engineering and user experience.

As the article explores user experience throughout time, though not in those words, it draws on Henry Dreyfuss’s book Designing For People.

The book, released in 1955 by the American industrial designer, is often cited as a crucial point in the understanding between people, product and design.

“When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed,” he is quoted as writing. “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.”

Disney’s Role in User Experience

The article also credits Walt Disney with bringing an element of joy to user experience design. When he imagined Disney World, he described the project as “always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people.” What he was talking about is what user experience designers often consider the element of delight in an experience.

Although Walt Disney passed away before the park’s completion, the park became a place of imagination and an example of tech-based user experience that happen outside of a screen.

However, Disney knows screens all too well. The 1981 release of the book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation unveiled the 12 Basic Principles of Animation, a guideline Disney animators have been utilizing since the 1930s. The principles became the foundation of computer animation, but have also been reimagined to suit contemporary motion design and its relation to user experience.

Where Does User Experience Go From Here?

These days, we have user experience designers, user experiece architects, user experience researches and so on. There are schools that are solely focused on the relationship between design, psychology and science, and fields in Human Computer Interaction devoted to the relationships between man and machine. User experience designers are in demand, and practitioners are joining the field from all different backgrounds.

The term may be relatively new as far as disciplines go, but the study of how humans behave in certain situations dates back centuries and will only continue going forward.

As technology and our relationship to it evolves, and as we interact with novel technologies using voice, touch and gesture, the study of user experience design will only reveal new insights, new methodologies, and new understandings of how design can shape our experiences.