Where User Experience comes from

I think many people probably assume that UX design is something that just started in the last few years. UX is just another important part of today’s design world. It is true that it is modern but it’s something that has been in the makings for over a century. Design is a service for humans. Just as Kim Goodwin in his book, Designing for the Digital Age, says, “design is the craft of visualizing concrete solutions that serve human needs and goals…” So let’s see who was the first serve people with design.

Way back in the 1900s Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer, shaped how laborers and their tools should be as. Making the everyday laborer’s life easier.

Frederick Winslow Taylor

In 1948, Toyota successfully found a way to bring human interaction with technology with their products allowing them to succeed. Toyato in a way put the “user” in ux design. They turned something with a even better focus.

In 1966, Walt Disney described his project, Disney World, as “always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people.” Because of his wonderful imagination he was able to open a world for people that gave them joy. To me this is absolute design serving human needs. Walt created something that implies to the everyday user experience designer and that is creating products that bring joy to people by using design that improves their lives.

In Joseph Dickerson’s article, Walt Disney: The World’s First UX Designer, he mentions several points of why Walt Disney was one of the earliest designers of user experience (Dickerson, 2013):

  1. Make special moments: Disney and his team had a sharp focus on creating a unique experience that guests could not get anywhere else. This focus on making as many special moments as possible resulted in happy (and repeat) customers. Human beings retain bad memories more than good, so providing happy moments results in people revisiting in a desire to relive or recapture those special moments.
  2. Always be plussing: Disney was never completely satisfied. He always asked for more, always pushed his team to bring more to the table. He called this “plussing,” incrementally improving details and elements of an experience. It wasn’t “adding more stuff” — which so many companies do — it was making a good experience better; making sure the sound effects on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride were loud enough to rattle the riders; making sure that the Tiki Birds were able to have dozens of different gestures, not just ten. It was aspirational, and I think it’s the right way to approach design. Imagine if all designers and developers did their work with this type of attitude.
  3. Give customers options: Walt didn’t design one different locale with the original Disneyland: he made four of them, each with a different theme and different experiences. By doing so he was able to appeal to more people, and also allow for people to either stay in one “land” (such as Adventureland) for an entire visit, or use the “hub” to quickly jump from there to Tommorowland, or another area. be plussing
  4. Fix things that don’t work: The grand opening of Disneyland was, in many respects, a disaster. They ran out of food, rides broke down, counterfeit tickets were being used to get into the park, and the asphalt sidewalks had not finished curing in many places. Though I’m pretty sure there was some yelling involved, Disney met with his team, did a postmortem, and fixed things. We need to follow that example, be self-conscious and objective about our designs, and fix what isn’t working.
  5. Take risks: As briefly noted above, Disney sunk a tremendous amount of his own money in two projects: a full-length animated film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Disneyland. Both projects brought him to the brink of losing it all, and both projects were huge successes. We need to take risks with what we design, and “aim for the fence” just like Disney did, because great risk also brings great reward.
  6. Hire smart people: Disney surrounded himself with incredibly talented people and let them do their thing. Though he had to approve almost all the details, he knew that he needed top-notch people to execute his vision and to bring new perspectives to the table. Follow Disney’s lead when it comes to building your team. Direction like this convinces me that Disney was the world’s first UX designer.
  7. Innovate: Disney innovated both filmmaking and resort experiences, creating the multi-plane camera for film and a complex series of animatronic robots for his parks. He could have gone the safe route and not pushed the envelope, but he did, and we all benefited. Where can you innovate in your design work? What new ideas or interactions can you bring to the table?
  8. Use data to make things better (and maximize profits): Disney looked at traffic patterns and sales data from his parks to change things. Sold out of ice cream in Frontierland last week? Double the number of ice cream stands there this week. Too many people in line for Splash Mountain? Redesign the queue to make sure that the people have extra shade and fans. Disney was one of the first people to look at analytical data to influence business decisions. Like Walt, UX professionals should leverage analytical data to inform their understanding of users and supplement qualitative user research.
  9. Test, refine, then test again: Disney sent friends and family on rides like Jungle Cruise before they opened to elicit feedback and fine-tune the experience. It’s exactly what we do as user experience professionals and he did it 50 years ago.
Walt Disney

Everything that Dickerson wrote is all so important because it can help us improve with our own design skills and we can take the tools that Walt Disney, one of the world’s most successful designers and businessmen to make people’s everyday lives better with technology and design. We have lot more to learn and create. Going back in history has shown me that there is so much more to ux design than the basics. Nothing is ever finished in design. We can change it, make it better, improve it, and work our hardest to bring joy.

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