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Once Upon a Time in UX
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Once Upon a Time in UX

Once Upon a Time in UX

Theertha Raj
May 2, 2024

Remember 2022?

That was a good year for UX researchers.

It was also the year the Elon Musk took over Twitter (X🤢) and the infamous Oscars slap happened. But people were being nicer to UXRs. If you drew a chart of UX job postings in the US year by year, 2022 saw a whopping 566% rise. Just wow.

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The chart might also make you wonder— did they invent UX research as a profession in the 2010s? Is your job 10 years younger than the Shrek franchise?

UX research as a formal discipline, hasn’t been around all that long. True.

But did you know that the foundations of UX (user experience) have been part of human culture and inventions for centuries?

It’s quite an exciting story, and one that not a lot of folks know.

In this article, we’re going down memory lane to look into the ancient (okay early 1900s ancient) roots of user experience, and all the contributions that made its evolution possible.

In case you were wondering: it has always mattered how people interact with products and spaces. It’s just that those spaces became digital more recently 💻

Let’s time travel!

Grandma's Kitchen Was a UX Masterpiece

Once upon a time, in the prehistoric age before computing…

Everyone assumes that UX came into being with computers.


As long as humans have been using tools, UX thinking has been around.

The ancient cavemen probably held seminars on how to carve your knife handle so it’s easier to cut branches. Probably.

While the language of UX is new (cavemen didn’t call it usability testing), the fundamentals of UX have existed for centuries, quietly shaping our world to make our lives easier and more enjoyable. 

As Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group and author of "The Design of Everyday Things," reminds us, the best UX design is often invisible. It's so seamlessly integrated into our lives that we don't even notice it's there, quietly anticipating our needs and making everything just a little bit better. 

Take your grandma's kitchen, for example. You know how everything just seemed to be in the perfect place, and cooking felt like a breeze?

You can thank “Lillian Gilbreth” for that—a psychologist and OG UX-er.

At first things were going along swimmingly for Lillian. She and her husband John started a business observing workers and suggesting improvements to their efficiency (they called it “motion studies”). Business was booming, and the family was growing (with 11 kids!).

But life can never be too smooth, can it?

John suddenly passes away and leaves Lillian widowed and without a career. Men simply don’t want to work with an unaccompanied woman in the 1920s.

So what’s a woman to do, but rebrand herself as an expert in the one domain she’d be taken seriously in—the home.

First things first—her kitchen is a horrible mess. Naturally, Lilian decides to optimize workflows for cooking.

As luck would have it, she has 11 study subjects sitting at home (her kids!). Lillian enlists them to make strawberry shortcake.

Yes, research studies were more fun back then.

Lillian pulls out her stopwatch, timing each task, and observing her kids’ movements. Counter to oven. Back to the counter. Skipping past a chair to the sink.

You know how it goes. (If not, here’s the a strawberry shortcake recipe to try your hand at)

Eventually she sits down with a nice slice of shortcake to distill her findings. 

And so the “Golden Triangle” is born—the most popular and efficient kitchen design to this day. 

File:Work triangle.jpg
The kitchen work triangle

Lillian’s new kitchen design is built on three principles:
🍳Working surfaces should be at a specific uniform height
🍳The workplace had to be circular (with the sink, stove and fridge in a triangle)
🍳It needed a circular routing of working, to reduce the time and effort required in the preparation of meals

Some of this might sound obvious to us today (who has counters at different heights?!), but it wasn’t in the 1920s.

Can you imagine reaching and stooping for different counters in your kitchen? Unfathomable.

📱Bell labs builds the first ‘UX’ team

Let’s skip a few decades. An exciting new technology has entered the conversation: the telephone.

Turns out, product decisions for the most innovative technology and at the most innovative companies, were backed by UX Research even in the 1940s.

Bell Labs—a pioneering tech company in its day—actually founded the first Human Factors department in 1945, with psychologist John Karlin. 

One of Karlin’s most notable projects? Usability testing designs for the all new telephone.

First thing’s first: the team designed different keypad layouts. They came up with XX different designs—numbers in a circle, semi-circle, in chronological order, reverse chronological order. Since most people had never used a telephone before, they were starting with a blank slate. 

Next: the testing phase. The team hired a lot of test participants, and observed them use each keypad to enter phone numbers. They timed the whole thing, recorded error rates, and talked to the users about their  preferences. Your classic usability test.

The result: the telephone keypad we all know and love to this day.

The company also saved millions of dollars with the new design, proving that thinking about people was actually great for business! When users were able to dial faster, they took up less time blocking the central office switching equipment. These switching stations were expensive to run, so the most efficient they were, the company saved more money!

💻 The Dawn of the Computer Age 

The next era of UX was all about HCI– Human-Computer Interaction.

Early computers were for the serious folks—mathematicians, scientists and office workers. They weren’t optimized for usability, to say the least.

The first word processor, WordStar, looked quite boring. It was also not the easiest to read and use. It looked like a typewriter with green or white text on a black screen. It did evolve and get better over the years. Later versions looked like paper with black text on a white screen. 

But at some point, the folks making computers realized that they needed to make it easier for the people to use, in order for their product to be more valuable. That’s the story of the Xerox Star, by the way.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Xeros was the grooviest shop in town. In fact, they developed the first commercialized personal computer and set the standard for the way we use interfaces today.

But the OG bad boy revolutionary star of the time? It was the Xerox Star.

Back in the early 80s, when shoulder pads were all the rage and people still used fax machines (the horror!), the brilliant minds at Xerox unleashed the Xerox Star upon an unsuspecting world. It was nothing short of a revolution.

Aside from the technological advances it made, Xerox Star was also one of a kind for the importance it paid to user interface.

For the first time ever, a computer system was designed from the ground up with the user experience as the top priority. Instead of just tacking on a slapdash interface as an afterthought, these designers flipped the script. They sketched out the ideal user experience first, before a single line of code was written or a circuit board was soldered. 

The genius of it was why they did it. The Xerox Star was the first personal computer. The designers wanted to make it intuitive for the average Joe, so they built an interface that mimics the natural environment of the users, i.e. the workplace!

File:Desktop icons for Xerox Star 8010.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Desktop icons on the Xerox Star

They used this concept—"what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG). Text was displayed on white background that looked like paper so that it actually looked like a printed office document.  The Xerox Star introduced now-iconic concepts like windows, icons, trashcans for deleting files (so satisfying), and even the humble double-click. It took the office desk as inspiration and turned it into a digital playground.

Envelopes became email icons, file folders housed your documents - it was a metaphorical masterpiece!

For the first time, computers spoke the language of the people instead of the other way around. The revolution had arrived, and it was draped in sleek, user-friendly interfaces.

What does the future of UXR look like?

(It looks like you 🥰)

UX research has come a long way, from radical motion scientists in the 1920s to a must-have for product teams and businesses in the 2020s.

We have our own jargon, over a hundred conferences dedicated for UXRs annually, and our fair share of Linkedin influencers!

But what does the future of this industry look like?

We don’t believe in divination or crystal balls, but this is what the experts say.

AI research assistants

Whatever your feelings about AI might be, it’s clear that you cannot escape it!

(might as well get with the program)

Our take?

AI cannot replace UXRs.

AI should not replace users.

BUT AI can be a great assistant in day to day UXR work.

AI tools are already automating a lot of the more tedious, time-consuming parts of research, like transcription, qualitative coding and searching through files to find that one quote

Even though researchers aren’t going anywhere, AI will most likely re-shape the way we work much like telephones did in the 1940s and computers in the 1980s.

Hyper personalized technology

It’s possible that the dawn of AI also enables hyper-personalization.

Instead of creating a one-size-fits-all product for the majority market, the future may lean towards products that customize experiences individually for its users.

Heard of Generative UI? It theoretically allows you to create hyper-personalized interfaces for products generated in real-time.

If interfaces are being customized to every user’s need, UX research can shift towards understanding key use cases / types of users. UXRs might spend more time studying personas and use cases, oriented towards training their AI technology to create personalized interfaces.

More demand for research

Every time we’ve had new technology (factory lines, telephones, computers), companies have had to think about how people can and should interact with it.

The same is true today.

With new tech, come new questions.

How do you build trust for AI features in your product?

How do you explain AI output to users?

When will users expect to iterate on the output? How many times should they be able to?

The questions are piling up! If you’re not thinking about them today, you probably will be very soon.

User privacy and ethical concerns

New technologies also mean new ethical concerns.

Have you seen the Reid Hoffman AI yet?

My first thought when I saw it: How do you tell Real Reid and AI Reid apart?! 😱

This is just one example of all the murky, icky, confusing questions coming up in our digital world.

As UX-ers we should be ready to take on these questions to contribute to the debate of what we want our future to look like. In a world that looks more like a Black Mirror episode everyday, what protections do we need to put in place?

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