UX Lessons We Can Learn From the Past

By BrainStation January 14, 2019

We’ve written about the increasing demand for user experience (UX) design in cities like New York and Vancouver, but opportunities for UX Designers are on the rise around the world. And while this is relatively new as a profession, the concept of designing something around your users is as old as antiquity itself.

Here is a brief look at the history of UX design (and some key design lessons we can learn from the past).

Finding Harmony in the Ancient World

When we talk about UX design, most people picture easy-to-use, free-flowing websites and mobile apps. They don’t tend to think about six-thousand-year-old Chinese philosophies. Still, there are a lot of similarities between UX design and feng shui, with some even calling the latter a form of “ancient UX design.”

Yes, feng shui does tell you to keep your toilet seat down if you don’t want to lose money. Let’s look past that. The philosophy gained in popularity, and is still being consulted, because it’s essentially focused on how to create harmony within your surroundings. According to consultant Rodika Tchi, “feng shui is sometimes thought to be the art placement—understanding how the placement of yourself and objects within a space affects your life in various areas of experience.”

Source: The Ergonomics Unit

This idea was also prevalent in Ancient Greece, where applied ergonomics, and the idea of designing objects and spaces to human characteristics, took hold. For an example, consider the Greeks’ famed theater culture, which often had citizens sitting in one spot for four consecutive plays. To make the experience more comfortable, theater seats were designed with an inward curve, which fit the shape of the lower leg. This allowed for more movement, and additional support for the lower part of the foot, making it easier to stand.

Ergonomics were so prevalent, that when Hippocrates wrote his suggested setup for a surgeon’s workplace, he took time to list the ideal posture, amount of light, and positioning of tools so that Physicians could “be within easy reach when required.”

Da Vinci and the Power of Usability Testing

As the story goes, the Duke of Milan asked Leonardo Da Vinci to design a kitchen that would help him and his palace host an extravagant feast. Da Vinci accepted and spent a few days watching the palace cooks in action. He came up with a plan and would soon invent:

  • The world’s first conveyor belt system, which brought ingredients and supplies out to cooks faster
  • A large oven that cooked food at higher temperatures
  • A sprinkler system, in case of fire

He also invited local artists to carve main courses into individual works of art for guests to eat.

On the surface, all of this seemed incredible, but Da Vinci had failed to check if any of this actually worked and if kitchen staff wanted it.

In the end, the conveyor belt proved too temperamental – first, it was too slow, then too fast, causing food to pile up. The new oven, which no one had worked with before, burned food, triggering the sprinkler system, which only ruined more food. The local artists, meanwhile, took too long to carve masterpieces out of each plate that actually managed to get out of the kitchen.

Everything Da Vinci designed worked, but the staff was frustrated, guests went home hungry, and the Duke was embarrassed. The kitchen had failed in the usability department.

Da Vinci may have learned from this mistake, writing in one of his famed notebooks, “experience does not err. Only your judgments err by expecting from her what is not in her power.”

Taylorism and Efficiency

If you’ve ever felt like a small cog in a large machine, you might want to wag your finger at Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneer of Taylorism (the egomaniac), which focused on making human labor more efficient.

In 1911, he wrote “The Principles of Scientific Management,” which proposed optimizing and simplifying jobs to increase productivity, often to the detriment of human thought and individualism. Taylor’s work was often criticized – he promoted the idea of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” with the implication that if a worker didn’t accomplish enough in a day, they didn’t deserve to be paid as much as those who had – but his ideas also included optimizing the use of tools. Over the years, he ran a number of UX-like workplace experiments, including devising a shovel that let workers shovel for several consecutive hours and finding the motions required for a bricklayer to lay bricks – all in pursuit of improving efficiency.    


Source: Politics/Letters

Toyota and Human-Powered Production

If Taylor’s work sought to simplify human output and thought, reducing them to cogs in a machine, the Toyota Production System did the opposite, putting a premium on ongoing human input.  

A precursor to lean manufacturing, the Toyota Production System kept tools visible and workspaces clean, and put an emphasis on employee autonomy and involvement – factory workers could actually stop the assembly line if they had suggestions to improve the process – all to reduce costs and waste and increase worker satisfaction.

The system, officially called Just-In-Time manufacturing, was created by Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda, who believed that “the ideal conditions for making things are created when machines, facilities, and people work together to add value without generating any waste.”  

Henry Dreyfuss and the Point of Contact

A name that comes up often in the history of UX design is Henry Dreyfuss, an American industrial engineer. Dreyfuss believed products should be designed with common sense, and then improved and refined through hands-on experience with the product.

Henry Dreyfuss 300 telephone

Source: IDSA

Dreyfuss’ approach might have come from his upbringing: his family was in the theatrical materials supply business, and he began his design career by producing over 200 stage sets for different theatres. Clearly, he had a knack for creating functional, practical spaces, but he soon branched out. In 1929, he won a competition to design the “phone of the future,” which ended up being the  “300” tabletop telephone, with a receiver and transmitter in a “combined handset.”

From there, Dreyfuss had a long list of successes, including:

  • A “flat-top” General Electric refrigerator, which hid the refrigeration unit beneath the cabinet
  • A new Toperator washing machine for Sears & Roebuck
  • Westclox’s Big Ben alarm clock
  • The John Deere Model A tractor
Big Ben Clock 1931

Source: Cooper Hewitt

Dreyfuss’ common sense approach to product design and refinement was informed by a number principles, including:

  1. The belief that the more users are exposed to well-designed products, the more their expectations grow. Designers have to stay ahead of their expectations.
  2. The designer’s role is to advocate for the user at all times and provide an impartial voice in corporate boardrooms.
  3. To improve the user experience, a designer has to understand the user, the manufacturing process, and the market.

In 1955, Dreyfuss wrote Designing for People, which sums up it all up this way: “When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the [designer] has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”

Disney’s Imagineers Create Experiences

Believe it or not, Walt Disney is often described as one of the first UX designers in history. To build his theme parks, Disney assembled a design team (dubbed Imagineers) to create immersive, magical user experiences.

Walt Disney Imagineering Epcot

To accomplish that, he stressed that his team followed a number of  best practices, including:

  • The idea that they should “always be plussing”
    Disney encouraged his team to bring something more than what was asked. He called this “plussing,” which was the idea of constantly improving details to improve the overall experience.
  • Give users options
    Disney’s idea to create different areas, with different themes, within his parks is something that echoes different UIs available today: it gives people options and appeals to a wider range.   
  • Use data to improve
    Disney looked at traffic patterns and sales data to tinker with things like the number of ice cream stands and queue designs, making him one of the first people to make data-driven business decisions.
  • Test everything
    Disney used to send friends and family on rides before they opened to the general public. He then asked for feedback and made adjustments.

Xerox and the Need for Simplicity

In the 1970s, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) attracted some of the best Engineers and Computer Scientists of the era, including Ralph Kimball, one of the original architects of data warehousing.

XEROX PARC team in the 1970s

Source: Liar City

Margy Ross, the President of DecisionWorks Consulting, once described Kimball’s work at the time, which would set the stage for UX design for decades to come:

“Contrary to most product development practices at the time, a guiding principle for Ralph and his colleagues was to focus first on the user experience, then back into the design of the underlying hardware and software. They tried to follow the advice of their PARC colleague, Alan Kay: the simple things should be simple; complex things should be possible.”

Following this approach, PARC’s team went on to develop a number of innovations that still impact us, including client-server computing, the Ethernet, laser printing, bitmapped graphical user interfaces (GUI) with windows and icons, the mouse, object-oriented programming, and more.

Donald Norman and a Larger System

Building on the work of Xerox and PARC, Apple released the original Macintosh in 1984. The mass-market PC featured a graphical user interface, built-in screen, and a mouse, and had a unique design approach that set it apart. Steve Jobs “wanted to elevate Apple by using design,” and it would end up informing the way the entire company operated.

“Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team,” Mark Kawano, a former Senior Designer, once said.

It makes sense, then, that someone at the company would coin the term “user experience design.” That person was Donald Norman, a Cognitive Scientist, who joined Apple in the early 90s. His official title was User Experience Architect, which made him the first person to have UX in his job title.

“I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow: I 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.”

Don Norman

Source: Nielsen Norman Group

This approach provided the blueprint for Apple’s success over the last 25 years, from the design of the first iPods to the company’s physical stores.

In 1988, Norman published The Psychology of Everyday Things (also known as The Design of Everyday Things), which, looking back, might not have seemed so out of place in Ancient Greece…

Looking to learn more about UX design? Find out more about BrainStations UX Design certification courses and diploma programs