The History of Digital Product Design

UX Researcher, UX Designer, CX Designer, Product Manager, Interaction Designer, Visual Designer… There are so many User Experience roles out there that very often recruiters get confused about what they are really looking for. Businesses that are less experienced with the topic don’t have too much criteria for picking the right job title for recruitment ads. This field is so broad that someone actually came up with a UX Job Title Generator to illustrate how confusing the whole nomenclature is.The existence of so many roles inside of User Experience is a clear demonstration of how endless disciplines have an influence on product development nowadays. But it definitely hasn’t always been like that. We thought it would be fun  to step back and look at the history of interactivity between humans and technology. And this timeline is probably a bit longer than you think.

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) – The term was popularized by Stuart K. Card, Allen Newell and Thomas P. Moran in the book The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction (1983). For the authors, unlike any other everyday object with only one function, like a hammer, for example, the computer can be used in many different ways by a person. This explains why the interaction between humans and computers is similar to a dialogue. Well, this interaction needs to happen somewhere, right? Until the beginning of the 80s, the only user interface available was text-based.

Text-based User Interfaces (TUI’s) – Text and symbols are the most important elements in this type of interaction. It seems simple, but, as you can imagine, operating a computer was challenging task at the time. Not only machines were super big and complex, but the text-based environment itself was difficult to understand. Some people then decided to make it more fun and created text-based online communities. Have you heard of the good old Bulletin Board Systems chats? Or perhaps have you used one of them yourself?

Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) – The first BBS was developed by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in 1978. The main idea was to exchange information with other people without having to meet personally (also because Chicago was snowed under the Great Blizzard of 1978, so yeah, going outside was not really ideal anyways). A digital version of a bulletin was the easiest way to keep the conversation going. Pretty much like an old-fashioned social media channel, right? News spread fast and people started to create BBS “chats” about different topics. All you needed was a telephone line and a modem to be able to interact with other users.

Graphical-based User Interfaces (GUIs) – Text-based interfaces were still around when the research and development company Xerox PARC, from Palo Alto (California), launched a pioneer product. Xerox Star (1981) was an early version of a personal computer with visual elements on the desktop. PARC didn’t go extremely successful with the sales, but the product inspired other companies to research more about applying icons and windows to create more appealing interfaces. One of this companies was Apple.

Web 1.0 – At the beginning of the 90s, personal computers and the internet became popular. The first version of a web browser appeared in 1990.  Web 1.0 was mostly used for sending emails, online shopping, forums and some entertainment – with cheesy graphics and awesome soundtracks. “Space Jam”, anyone?Can you remember the old days of the internet? Websites had a poor layout and static pages built in HTML. There was not enough attention being paid to design and the information structure was still very rigid at that point. But we did have hyperlinks (lots of!). And the visits count on the bottom of the page – That was a classic!When web development evolved in terms of appearance and structure, tools like Photoshop and Dreamweaver became popular for those ones that wanted to create appealing websites. But usability still did not play an important role in digital product development.

User Experience: The first person to use the term User Experience was the cognitive psychologist Don Norman. When he joined Apple, in 1993, companies didn’t use invest too much on user research. But they soon would have to adapt to market needs. The advent of web 2.0 and a new generation of mobile devices was yet to come.

Web 2.0 – In the late 90s, the web became a social space, and users, more empowered. Suddenly it was all about user-generated content, social media, applications and interactivity. From this point on, offering good content was not enough. Users wanted online experiences, and those companies that started taking user experience into consideration were one step ahead. Apple was one of the pioneers in the implementation of user experience analysis in the early stage of product development. Remember how was your first mobile phone? Stop everything and watch this video before we go on. It’s gonna make you miss the old days.iPhone – Before iPhone debuted in 2007, phone manufacturers would constantly launch products with technical improvements, but no focus on the end-user. Apple revolutionised the industry by introducing to the market devices that were easy to use and beautiful at the same time. For the first time, simplicity and intuitiveness were taken seriously. Apple’s competitors had no option but to step up the production of more user-friendly devices.It represented a huge change because from this point on, customers started to demand seamless user experience when interacting with all digital products. This obviously reflected on application development.Nowadays, the best apps are the ones that communicate perfectly with the platform for which they are built, be it iOs, Windows or Android. They behave according to user’s expectations, have a responsive design and are easy to use. That’s what we call a native user experience.

UX Design – In response to these new market needs, the role of UX Designer emerged around 2010. The demand for UX Designers increased rapidly (more than 70% between 2010 and 2012, according to a study from digital recruitment firm QConnects).

Material Design – In the history of Digital Product Design we reached a level in which User Experience currently defines what is (and what is not) good design. One example of this is Material Design, a concept introduced by Google in 2014. Its main elements are grid-based layouts, the use of light and shadow for depth effects and padding. The inspiration? How people interact with paper and ink! From 2015, Material Design has been used throughout all Google’s applications.

When Don Norman first used the term User Experience, he probably did not imagine that this concept would inspire the most important changes on digital product development. In fact, he created the term because he felt there was a big gap in how business perceived customers and how users were interacting with products. Normal said in an interview that he wanted “to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”This quote explains why digital product development became a multidisciplinary field of studies. Building either a website or an application definitely demands something more than only coding expertise. In the words of Eric Eriksson, a digital product designer “helps you identify, investigate, and validate the problem, and ultimately craft, design, test and ship the solution”.The popularity of concepts like design thinking, the success of design-led companies such as Apple and also the advent of Agile, Lean and other frameworks that enable cross-functional teams, explain why design took the centre stage of product development. As you can see, the history of digital product design can only be understood when you delve into the evolution of interaction between humans and technology. As we talk about design when we talk about interactivity, looking at this history can also helps us understand in which direction product development is going.“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday. “ /Pearl BuckDid you enjoy reading this text? Subscribe for more content on the topic!

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