For quite some time now, one can’t scroll through tech blogs without stumbling upon a new article about the importance of UX and UI Design. Since 2009, people in the industry regularly love to cite the 300-million-dollar-button as a great example of…what again? Was that UI or UX? And how relevant is this question nowadays anyway? 8 years are a mighty long time in internet terms. It’s not just optimizing the checkout process anymore. Customers expect not only great product quality, but also a consistent online brand experience. A unique brand feeling. You’d rather trust facts than feelings? Turns out you are an exception then: Humans trust sophisticated design.
Research even shows that by 2020, consumers will value a user experience over the product itself, or even the price. Need examples? There are plenty. They go by names like Starbucks, Apple or Snapchat. That screams for qualified talent. But the job definitions for UX and UI Designers are often as spongy as required skills. So what is UX and UI Design actually doing to a brand? What are the origins? And where is it going? Let’s find out.
1896-1966: Roots and pioneers
function”– Horatio Greenough
Any person remotely interested in design heard it once in awhile: form follows function. The sentence, often mistaken to be created by the Bauhaus design school, was originally introduced by the american sculptor Horatio Greenough in 1852. Half a century later, architect Louis Sullivan popularized the term among his students and brought it to a broader audience by mentioning it in various essays. Its quintessence:
Just like in nature, an object’s form should stem from its function.
Bauhaus influencers interpreted the concept later as Minimalism or Brutalism, but it happens to be more than just reduction repressing aesthetics in favor of usage.
It’s about designing usability to a point of nature-like intuitive experience.
Pleasing aesthetics or haptics can very much be an essential part of that experience. Big windows light up a room– and make us feel comfortable. We’re able to see more while feeling more awake and productive. In other words: The room design as a whole becomes a positive user experience. As we see, the concept of User Experience has been around long before we called it by that term.
But when did we start doing so?
There are numerous approaches on getting hold on the birth of this understanding of design. On that hunt, one almost inevitably crosses industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss’ standard work “Designing For People” from 1955. As the title suggests, it focusses on people as users, being a blueprint of what we would call usability in today’s terms. Dreyfuss sketches out a design that’s not only beautiful and functional, but also instantly comprehensible: Intuitive. His ideal creation process: “We begin with men and women and we end with them.”. Doing so, the design would become a “silent salesman”– an insight that’s nowadays truer than ever.
Other voices claim visionary entertainment tycoon Walt Disney as the godfather of UX understanding. As one of the first businessmen, he based his company’s innovations upon data insights and prototyping, even formulating the user journey as early as 1966. Even on a daily basis, he relied on a set of simple rules later known as Mickey’s 10 Commandments. Though created long before the digital revolution, they could as well be hung at any tech-startup fridge today with no questions asked.
1970-2000: The rise of the GUI
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”– Walt Disney
The world’s first modern GUI on the other hand, rose quite some questions. In 1973 printer company XEROX’s R&D lab PARC, also known for inventing ethernet and laser printing, came up with the Xerox Alto, the world’s first GUI-based personal computer featuring the world’s first mouse. Joining insights from psychology, digital know-how and ergonomics, the team around internet pioneer and psychologist Robert W. Taylor became unknowingly the first modern UX/UI Design team in computer history. Sadly at that time, computers were working tools for scientists and engineers only, with virtually nobody even thinking about possible applications for the man on the street. That included XEROX’s board as well: They just didn’t see a potential in personal computing. Instead, reported PARC visitors Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did, taking the visionary idea of UI and UX with them, founding…well, you know.
Some years later, the Personal Computer started his inevitable triumph. But mass-compatible products like the Apple I, the Commodore or IBM’s also set a new bar for UX and UI design: This new generation of users expected a GUI that was also fully comprehensible for non-IT-professionals. The industry followed and in 1994, Microsoft was claiming it was “Making it easier.”
Still it wasn’t until 1995 until psychologist and designer Don Norman, subsumed this skillset as User Experience Architect to describe his own job at Apple. It was the first time the expression User Experience was used in this context. Having written “User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human Computer Intercation” (1986) and “The Design Of Everyday Things” (1988), his definition of UX and UI caught the industry’s attention by storm, leading to improved user-centered digital design processes.
And the moment was just right: At about the same time, Marc Andreessen introduced Mosaic (later known as Netscape Navigator), the first widely used web browser, opening a whole new discipline of UX and UI Design: The internet. For the first time ever, digital products had to be designed for virtually anybody in the world. Many companies saw that potential, leading to an evolutionary-like race for the best online user experience. Browsers and websites that failed to adapt to their user’s rapidly changing needs or expectations disappeared or shrunk to almost non-existance.
Naturally, UX and UI Designers played a significant role in this process. Take Google: Only founded in 1996, its mix of an innovative logarithm and intuitive usability dominated the entire market by 2000.
2000-2016: Design for the masses
Digital Design as we know it today really took up pace by the mid-zero years. Business “Communicators” made their first baby steps as mass-compatible Smartphones. Hardware and internet speed were evolving faster in terms of performance and portability, creating the environment for more sophisticated, fluent applications and media usage.
And yes, this is the point where we have to talk about 2007 seeing the introduction of the first Iphone. Its success was basically the result of integrated digital Design, changing the industry’s and the public’s perception of the internet forever. Yes, there was working mobile web before, accessible on fumbly Blackberrys and Nokias, but the Iphone’s intuitive usability and overall user experience was completely out of league. As all competitors adapted its (touchscreen) principles, this led again to new challenges and chances for UX and UI Design. Improved responsivity, apps and new technologies such as the gyrometer were just a few of them, as other manufacturers hurried to keep up with the new standard of always-on.
One of those challenges was the limitation of the HTML4-standard, an architecture almost untouched since 1999. To provide the skyrocketing number of internet users with a more fluid experience free from third-party-plugins, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group proposed a new standard as early as 2004. In 2008, the first working draft for HTML5 was published. Although it should take until 2014 to completion, it already spoiled forthcoming trends: Optimized for mobile, it offered an overall better page compression, user-friendlier input types and a range of media and vector usage possibilities.
“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.”– Charles Eames
Soon, Designers started creating pages that had little to do with the once so technical and abstract UI of the early web: Thanks to HTML5 and CSS3, browsing began to feel and handle natural, even for inexperienced users. People felt at home online. This shift also held a symbolic message for both online and offline entrepreneurs:
The future market would be about web-based dynamic applications. A whole new ecosystem of online services and apps conquered the world. And still is today. Tools once expensive and boxed-only are now available online. UX and UI are becoming symbiotic. Most companies expect skills in both fields anyway. Our journey takes us back to the idea we started with a hundred years ago: Great designers merge Aesthetics, Technology and human Insights into one experience.
2017- : Prospects
Digital Design has shaped our digital experience over the years, making it easier to use and understand humanity’s most substantial invention since printing. However, it relies on very few, basic principles that are applicable to almost every successful innovation. A mix of technical know-how and human-based insights in an ever-advancing state of technical progress, always reflecting societal relevance and even itself.
Sound exaggerating to you? How about this:
90% of all iOS apps are not being used anymore after 30 days. Same goes for Android. So where are we headed? Multi-purpose-apps? Then why would you need an operating system after all? Most software giants place their bet on smartphones becoming something of a voice-controlled digital assistant. Good idea– but who wants a subway full of 50+ people talking to their devices? Will our future be voice-controlled? Pupil-powered? Gesture-guided? Or steered by a mix of all forms of human expression? Once again, it’s up to digital Designers to get those new human-machine interaction solutions across the masses. Perhaps then “form follows function” becomes “function follows feeling”?
Nobody knows for sure. Only one thing is certain: Digital design will stay exciting.