Where Did “User Experience” Come From?

Posted by Taylor Haney on Wed, Oct 8, 2014

We have another excellent user experience and design blog post to share with you this week. This post, written by Founder of Involution Studios, Dirk Knemeyer, takes a look at where the idea of "user experience" came from and what's next in this space.

Dirk KnemeyerDirk (@dknemeyer) is a social futurist and a founder of Involution Studios. He envisions new systems for organizational, social, and personal change, helping leaders to make radical transformation. Dirk is a frequent speaker who has shared his ideas at TEDx, Transhumanism+ and South by Southwest along with conference keynotes in Europe and the United States. He has been published in Business Week and participated on the 15 boards spanning industries like healthcare, publishing, and education.

User experience is a nearly ubiquitous term in business today. We gobble up the latest and greatest on methods, case studies, principles, and practices, but do we really know very much about where it came from? Happily for you in 2005 I researched the origins of this creative field and the recent surge of popularity has compelled me to dust that off and share it with you.

Humble Beginnings

The first example I was able to find of the phrase “user experience” was in the proceedings for the VIM-21 Conference in October 1974. On pages 284-286 a presentation by E.C. Edwards and David J. Kasik is entitled “User Experience with the CYBER Graphics Terminal”. While the specifics of how user experience was applied are apparently lost to history the context was indeed quaint. The cyber graphics terminal would be similar in form factor to a Macintosh computer from the early 1980’s but crucially lacking a mouse or visual operating system. The interface was a keyboard and a screen but, crucially, this early concern with user experience was in the context of a terminal that explicitly focused on graphics and not just numbers or text. This use of “user experience” was relatively isolated and, while there are other examples of the phrase in informal use, if would be almost two decades before the term received any real sort of mainstream recognition beyond professional/academic areas of issue such as the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) community.

Apple in the Middle

The modern emergence of user experience came at Apple Computer, Inc. in 1993. Donald Norman, a thought leader in HCI self-selected the title of “User Experience Architect” for his work at the computer maker. Due to the prominence of both Norman and Apple Computer, Inc. the use of “user experience” for both job titles and company groups and departments spread rapidly in Silicon Valley. Within a few years a variety of companies in the global home for digital technology were formally using the term. At the same time software companies were, largely for the first time, looking at design and user experience as a stand-alone consideration. Previously the design of software was done by the engineers who were coding it. Now, the emergence of user experience as a concept and design as a more formal and vital part of the software creation process was revolutionizing how software was being made. The reliance on the aesthetic skills and usability instincts (or lack thereof) of the engineering team was being replaced by professionals who were emerging experts in the user experience. For example, Andrei Herasimchuk, a founding member of Amherst, Massachusetts-based Specular International, an early 3D graphics company, was recruited in 1995 by Adobe Systems to move to Silicon Valley and become the company’s first interface designer. From 1982 until 1995 Adobe’s ubiquitous creative tools such as Photoshop were designed by the engineers that coded them. The timing of Herasimchuk’s hiring is reflective of the rapid trend toward design and user experience. However, this trend largely remained within the Silicon Valley bubble. At least, at first.

Involution blog 1The Rise of User Experience

The recent history is likely more familiar. As the late 1990’s dot com boom accelerated, user experience began seeping out beyond the confines of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. This expansion led user experience to most commonly be associated with the website design field. Whereas the origins in Silicon Valley rooted user experience in software products the abundance of website design projects and practitioners compared to the dearth of software design opportunities resulted in user experience being a professional domain largely dominated by websites as the focus. In 2001 Adaptive Path was formed in San Francisco, California as the first explicit user experience consultancy, primarily consulting and creating around websites. In 2004 my partners and I formed Involution Studios in Palo Alto, California to explicitly consult on and create software product user experiences as opposed to websites. Shortly thereafter the rise of “Web 2.0” shifted user experience away from the more austere usability culture focus that was predominant and toward a professional practice that help aesthetics in a place of similar privilege. This was the critical shift to help mainstream user experience to become a phrase familiar to business leaders in every industry and local market across the country, as it now was producing things that didn’t just work better in abstract ways that could be difficult to understand but demonstrably looked better to everyone.

Where Next?

With the rise of smartphones and tablets the focus of user experience has shifted away from websites and back to the software and products that initially birthed the term. The current trend that will have major ramifications on user experience in the next five years is the convergence of hard sciences with digital products and experiences. The rise of emerging technologies like synthetic biology, genomics, and robotics will tear user experience beyond the primarily two dimensional concern of things on a screen and into high complex products that bring science fiction to life in ways we never thought would actually happen.

But considering the future of user experience is an article for another day.