The past, present and future of User Experience Design

User Experience is actually something much older than the age of digital computers. It’s about how a person uses a tool. In time these tools became more sophisticated and were able to operate on its own. This required a way of human-machine interaction that was new for everybody. Early machines had different interfaces, mostly button-based, and with a limited feedback which wasn’t a big deal because the machines where straightforward, so you could instantly see if it was doing what is was supposed to do.

In the 18th century the first concepts were developed where machines could calculate certain outcomes based on punch cards input. These systems where mechanic, based on gears, an mostly not very stable. And then, in the 19th century, the digital computer was introduced. More buttons and a screen for results & feedback, but only useable by specialized people.

Shortly after, the first globally adapted interface system were introduced. The Command Line Interface that were implemented in the 80s as PC-DOS in the first Personal Computer.

In the meanwhile people were working on a system that eventually drastically changed the way how we would work with a computer. From the 50s people were working on the “mouse”. Eventually in ‘68 this concept was finally ready to be deployed and made the second generation of interfaces possible. The Graphical User Interface. In mid 80s the first operating systems with a graphical user interface, like the MacIntosh OS, AmigaOS, Atari TOS and Windows 1.0, were released.

With the availability of miniaturization, computers were able to become more and more powerful which made improved operating systems with better user interfaces possible. Currently we are still using the same type of user interface. Based upon a graphical representation with using an input-device to control the interface and thus operating the underlying system.

Past of the User Experience Specialist roles

When the digital computer was introduction in mid 80s there was only one role. The programmer. He used to do the project management, architecture, interface design, coding, testing, quality control and user support. Sometimes even some sales.

As most of us now know, this didn’t last. During the 80s and early 90s different new roles and work methods were introduced. This took most of the responsibilities from them, which, unfortunately, were not very much accepted by these first-day developers.

With these new roles also came the separation of the front-end and back-end developers. The final “insult” came when these first group had to take their advice from “user interface designers” and “human factors” professionals, who were usually not software professionals at all. They tended to be people with backgrounds in psychology or human factors. Many, if not most, programmers (especially those who had come to specialize in user interface tools) were used to, and liked, doing user interface design and considered themselves perfectly competent in this area, and were not at all happy to lose control of it. Early usability professionals were usually considered unwelcome interlopers by developers, and were still not well understood (and thus not well supported) by management. It was a tough role in the 80s.

In the 90s the development roles and methodologies had become commonly accepted. Unfortunately this wasn’t applied by what was then called a usability professional, as they still didn’t received a place in the methodologies. They were, like the programmers in the 80s, generalists who did not specialize in any particular usability role and did not have any structured, standard approach.

With the Internet Boom a lot of newcomers entered this branch, which didn’t have these negative feelings because it was all they have had ever known. And in this period also a new roles came. The graphic designer and information architect. And like what happened to the developers during the 80s and early 90s, these usability professionals now needed to share their responsibilities. Eventually these people also learned that as a team they could work far more efficient.

Present of the User Experience Specialist roles

Only recently a new role has been introduced, by what some people will call a “persuasion architect”. This role is meant to focus on the application to see if it connects to the basic purposes. For example for a web-shop this can mean how many people are actually buying, subscribing on the newsletter or using it for support. And how make the site to be found first through search-sites like Google.

With all these roles in the User Experience profession, it still is quite difficult to integrate within the existing development methodologies. Just as programmers had to do 20 years ago, user experience professionals need to embrace other specializations within our field and learn how to work with them most effectively. Part of the key to this is defining and adopting a development methodology that clearly incorporates all these skill sets in a balanced way.

Programmers have gone through a lot of changes and had to adapt in many ways since the 60s. But they are still considered indispensable to software development. While the usability profession has made a lot of progress and inroads in the industry over the past 25 years, they still are not considered integral and indispensable.

But this will come with time as many people do now understand that this will actually be needed in the future need for applications. I also am working on the key for integrating User Experience Design within the existing software developing methodologies. This especially on the Application Lifecycle Management method that we (Inter Access) are using within our cooperation. Read the blog post of my colleague Edward Bakker for more of this.

What will the future bring

I can’t predict what the future will bring, but I do know that we are trying to change to a new form of human-machine interaction. First we had CLI, then came GUI, and at present we are slowly transitioning to NUI, or Natural User Interface. In the future eventually the next step will be OUI, or Organic User Interface.

The NUI is actually not a replacement for the GUI, but more a way to replace the current input devices we now use for controlling the system to a more natural one. One way to do this is by direct touch.

I'm on the microsoft surfaceMicrosoft Surface is a device that is using a Natural User Interface to interact with the system. Yesterday I was allowed to actually touch and play a bit with this, still quite new technique.

To work with a device as such requires a completely different approach then users are used to today. I can’t deny that I was thrilled by it and imagined all kind of cool ways for using it. But it’s still a very long way before real business solutions will be developed based on a systems like this.

I think that a lot of User Experience Designers will have a hard time changing from the GUI stage to NUI. It will require to think in a different way. The experience has changed.

Perhaps with the introduction of OUI in combination with NUI, the GUI might eventually be able to be replaced. Not completely as there will probable always be a need for graphical feedback.

On the other hand, maybe there is no need for the waiting for OUI, as Microsoft Office Labs have released their ideas of how NUI can be used in real life on a day-to-day basis. They did this in a couple of video’s they released during MIX08. There are five of them and called Microsoft’s Future Vision.

This a fantastic tale about how it all can be, but it might eventually be what User Experience Designers are working on in the future. Making interaction naturally.

I know I certainly wouldn’t mind working on things like this.

*edit replaced the Soap-box video’s to links to Vimeo because they didn’t play in the blog post.

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