The War for UX — Thirty Years On

It’s been thirty-one years since Windows first graced our screens. But how much has user experience really changed in that time?


It’s 10th November 2014. Thirty-one years ago, from a small office in Redmond, Washington, a bespecticled software developer released his creation to the world. Little did he know how far it would fly, or how long it would fly for.

Microsoft wasn’t the first, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Ten years before Windows was birthed, Xerox built a bitmapped user interface that would probably still hold up as usable today. Apple, heavily influenced by Xerox, started working on their own desktop GUI in the late 70s and by 1984 had released the Macintosh Desktop.

What followed was nothing short of a land-grab remeniscent of the Land Runs seen in America in the late 1800s.

In the past 30 years, we’ve seen Windows come to dominate desktop operating environments, Apple take their UX concepts from little screen to big screen to little screen, and Xerox do… absolutely nothing. The internet boom of the 90s gave birth to a slew of awful design — from Windows 98's “lets put the internet so far in your face you choke on it” approach, through to the sprawling mess of animated GIFs and scrolling marquees that made the early web so memorable.

Windows 98 shoved the internet in your face so hard you’d choke on it.

The “battle for the desktop” was, at its heart, a battle for who could put their content in front of a user’s eyeballs the fastest. The UX designer of the late 90s and early 2000s was more salesman than artist, and cash wasn’t in short supply for those who could get a hit counter to pass a million.

Had the dot com bubble not burst, I don’t think we’d have moved past that “everything is an advert” mentality. As with any great economic upheaval, those who could change and adapt were the ones who survived — and the destruction of “Web 1.0" gave birth to a level of simplicity that has reigned since.

Google were the first company I saw that seemed to get ‘simple’ right. While every other search engine was trying to create ‘portal’ pages to hold their margins together after the bubble burst, Google burst onto the scene with a page so simple that I almost didn’t take them seriously. The focus on doing one thing — doing it well — and getting out of the way of the user so that they can focus on what’s important to them… it was a breath of fresh air.

Google’s simplicity was its biggest asset in the post-bubble era of the internet.

But what did this mean for UX?

Google’s fame wasn’t the only factor in changing the way people thought about user experience. Suddenly, a huge mass of people owned a computer. The world had become smaller — and users, for the first time, were seeing that they didn’t have to accept a heavily dictated user experience. They had choice.

And choice was good.

Apple capitalised on simplicity. Its idea that a desktop OS should be simple, entirely focussed around a user’s needs, was groundbreaking — but underused. Windows had a foothold on the world, and one it wasn’t giving up easily. The now infamous Mac vs PC adverts of the early 2000s did a great job of bringing the UX war to public view, ridiculing the complex and outdated, and celebrating the focus on user choice, user experience, and user needs.

The Mac vs PC ads ran from 2006 — 2009 and proved hugely popular.

Fast forward to the present day and technology — much like the automobile — is still very similar to how it was thirty years ago. While the devices we use have got smaller, and the internet has revolutionised the way that we all work and think, we still fundamentally sit down in front of a screen with a keyboard and mouse (or trackpad) and move a pointer around the screen.

Back to the Future predicted that by 2015 we’d have flying cars, holograms, and AIs that we could order Pepsi from in retro 80s themed cafes. In reality, my desktop looks so similar to Xerox’s 1973 invention you could hardly tell that 41 years had passed since it first said “Hello, world.”

Microsoft has, arguably, had the most guts in this fight recently — they took a gamble and changed the look and feel of Windows far more than Apple has changed OS X, and have had some very mixed reviews. People hate change.

But now, 31 years after it launched, the name of Microsoft’s flagship operating system is far more relevant to user experience than it ever has been:

All an operating system needs to be is a window.

The war for user experience wages on — but the tactics, and the definition of victory, is the biggest thing that has changed in the past thirty years. Content is paramount, context is key, and relevance is the glue that holds it all together. Nobody cares whether you’re a Mac or a PC any more (fanboys aside), nobody cares about portals or built-in apps or colour schemes. People want a personal connection with the technology they’re in front of — whether at home, work, or school — and they will always take the path of least resistance.

Personally? I’m torn between wanting every surface in my house to be a window into my digital world, and wanting only the smallest of devices to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual.

All I know is, if something doesn’t change soon, this war could just keep rumbling on forever — and the only real victims are the users.

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