A History of Digital User Experience – A Look at How Far We’ve Come

Let’s quickly step back to the 18th century Industrial Revolution to get our horseshoes re-sized. In those days, you would decide between the 2-3 blacksmiths in town based not just on price, but craftsmanship, speed, and possibly the human aspect of how friendly he is. Today, in the 21st century we now Google search our horse shoes (or new horse buggy, buggy insurance etc.), read reviews, compare prices, and ultimately settle on a vendor within driving distance – or order online from possibly anywhere on the globe. The online competition is tough and one of the major differentiators is UX. This trend shows no sign of stopping, especially with the growing trend of software as a service (SaaS) companies. The development of a holistic digital user experience is only going to become more important now that almost everybody carries a smartphone in their pocket (64% of US adults according to a 2015 Pew Poll study). Creating a seamless digital UX is no easy feat. Some of the principle factors at play are ease of site navigation, overall aesthetics, succinct and attractive product. Here I will list some of these key players in digital UX methodologies and how their roles have evolved since the 70’s. Using design as a tool for human communication is the powerful lesson to be learned from all the following industry insight.  

The 80’s; The Onset of Role Specialization

Consumer digital software design started with “programmers” in the 60’s and 70’s. Programmers designed system architecture, tested for quality control, managed the user interface, and in cases even did some relevant business analysis. There were no standard operating procedures in place to guide these lead programmers. They simply carried out project design in whatever seemed most efficient to them. As such, the entire user experience more or less began and ended with the vision of the programmers. The 80’s saw the proliferation of business analysts that focused on the marketability of software and the quality of the end user experience. Coding architecture itself began to split between system architecture and user interfacing – creating the divisions of programming we know today as “front end” and “back end”. The new role of User Interface Designer first began to emerge. This was not a technical programming role but rather a cognitive human psychology professional that worked with programmers in design theory. These early divisions of labor in the software design industry provided the framework for an increased focus on the digital user experience. Specialization and UX development was only in its embryonic stages.

The Dot Com Boom; The 90’s and on

With the Dot Com Boom, the market began to offer many new user experience-focused positions. There were now graphic designers that specialized in adding expression to the product thru banners, logos, fonts, and the many other aesthetic elements of the product. Information architects were now tasked with managing the growing digital content and streamlining navigation. Finally, the role of usability engineer came about to concentrate on the human computer interface and how the product interacts with the user end. Balancing workload responsibility among all these specializations may have been tricky at first, but there is a substantial advantage in drawing from so many skilled resources. The position “User Experience Architect” was actually coined by Don Norman, an electrical engineer and cognitive scientist, who joined Apple in 1995. Norman’s mission was to help design a human centered line of products. This mission peaked with the release of the iconic iPhone in 2007. Apple continued to dominate digital market share well into the 2010’s in large part due to their philosophy of user experience centered products.  

Present Day

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The Apple/Windows/Android war rages on but there is no shortage of user experience focused departments in modern companies. This healthy competition only drives the pursuit of the most polished UX even further. It is clear that as technology gets smarter and inter-product connectivity grows, users will demand a higher level of sophistication and intuitivism from their digital products. The new role of conversion experts are focused on refining the science of website efficiency. Software developers are now relying on the support of their teams and feedback from beta testers in crafting the most intuitive user friendly applications. An entire new market has even emerged for platforms that, when overlaid onto existing Apps, work to enhance user experience. These platforms walk users hand-by-hand through a digital process in order to decrease user confusion. In the rather short history of digital software, UX has evolved concurrently alongside digital processing capability. But as many scientists anticipate the end of Moore’s Law and a decrease in raw technological power advances, the focus on UX will be of even more importance as a differentiating factor amongst competitors. All the years of extant UX specialization have resulted in a streamlined UX that is only going to get better with continued focus and emerging user-centric applications. Take this quiz and see if you’re a natural born UXer!
Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)walkme.com