A brief history of user experience

4 min read
Ali Rushdan Tariq
  •  Feb 26, 2015
Link copied to clipboard

Think about the last time you ate at a restaurant. What cuisine did it serve?

What made you to choose that particular restaurant? What was your first impression as you walked in? Were you asked to wait till you were ushered to an available seat? How was the menu arranged? Did food come quickly enough? How did it taste? How was the customer service? Did your squaring up go smoothly? Would you go back again?

Your answers to these questions, including all the emotional highs and lows, encompass the restaurant’s user experience (UX).

However, when people use the term UX, they’re usually referring to one’s experience with a digital or technological product or service. The implication is that the user’s experience has been designed and is, at least potentially, further designable.

Today, UX has grown into an important design discipline that continues to grow and evolve. And while it’s fairly new, its multidisciplinary history can be traced all the way back to the Renaissance—if not earlier.

To think about where the much debated-practice of user experience design will take us next, it’ll help to take a look back at some of the key events in its meandering evolution.

Circa 1430: Leonardo da Vinci’s “kitchen nightmare”

Michael Gelb’s wonderful book “How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci” recounts the story of the Duke of Milan commissioning da Vinci to design the kitchen for a high-profile feast. The great Maestro took the job on with his usual inventive flair. In what is considered the first use of the technology (hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution) da Vinci designed and employed conveyor belts to transport food items to the preparers. He also built what is likely the first sprinkler system for safety measures.

Comically, however, the conveyer belts operated too erratically for the workers and—to make matters worse—the sprinkler system went off, ruining some of the food.

While this particular case was a disaster, it’s an early story that bears the trace of user experience design practices to come.

Early 1900s: Taylorism and the Industrial Revolution

Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer and one of the first management consultants, 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 the early vision of what interactions between laborers and their tools should be like.

1948: Toyota and the humanizing of the production system

While Toyota, like Ford, valued efficiency in engineering and production, it also sought its employees input. The assembly workers’ contributions were valued greatly—almost as much as the technologies used. 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

Henry Dreyfuss, an American industrial designer, wrote the classic text “Designing for People.”

In it, he writes:

When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial 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.

These principles, which include today’s oft-invoked concept of delight, have only grown more relevant as the points of contact between product and person proliferate.

1966: Disney and the role of joy

In a very early-stage announcement of what would later become Disney World, Walt Disney 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.” His imaginative use of technology to bring people joy continues to inspire user experience designers.

1970s: PARC and the design of personal computers

Xerox’s famous research arm, PARC, gave form and function to the design of computers for human use. Bob Taylor, a trained psychologist and engineer, led his team in building some of the most important and enduring tools of human-computer interaction, including the graphical user interface (GUI) and the mouse.

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 for 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.

And this inadvertently led to current business focus on user experience. If Apple’s emphasis on delivering great user experiences was winning them market success and critical accolades, others wanted in on it too.

The future of user experience

Every major milestone in the evolution of UX has involved an interaction between technology and human beings. As technology and the internet continue to weave themselves into our lives, we can expect to see UX continue to evolve. This will bring to light the need for more specialized skills in the multidisciplinary practice, including user research, graphic design, customer advocacy, software development, and more. In fact, a search on for jobs related to user experience shows that over 6,000 jobs have been posted in the last 15 days.

The internet is no longer confined to our laptops or smartphones—wearables and even implantables can now put is in a state of constant communication. This presents opportunities for user experience professionals to design interactions that transcend form factors with the ultimate purpose of improving people’s lives.

So whether you’re a da Vinci or a Ford, a Dreyfuss or a Disney, a Taylor or a Jobs, it looks like you’ll have plenty of opportunities to bring the world better user experiences.


Buley, Leah. The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide. Rosenfeld, 2013
Gelb, Michael. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. Dell, 2001.
Leonardo’s Kitchen Nightmare
Designing for People
Walt Disney: The World’s First UX Designer

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard