User Experience — here from the start.

Some history lessons from early product design.


Over the past week, I’ve been reading Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge, a pioneer of technical product design. Bill thoroughly describes the evolution of technical products, all the way back to Xerox PARC.

I noticed a pattern with all of of the products. Each company seemed to really value market research, frequent user feedback, and rapid iterations throughout the product’s development.

One series of events involving Jeff Hawkins caught my eye, which highlights the value of truly designing for the user. Hawkin’s distinguished career path began at Intel, and then GRiD, Palm, and Handspring. While at GRiD, Jeff led the marketing and sales of one of the first laptops ever made. One problem Jeff faced is summarized below:

“When you think back on it, it was amazing that it was difficult to get business people to use a laptop computer.

This particular event demonstrates the trouble of launching a product that is the first of its kind. Who would have thought that laptops would be a hard sell to business owners? However, Hawkins had solid data from many test users which proved that laptops would become a hit, so he continued improving the product over and over, until it was both viable and desirable for businesses.

The second event came later in Hawkin’s career after starting Palm. You’ve heard of the Palm models, such as the Pilot and Treo, but you may not have heard the vicious battles between Palm and competitors. From the late 90's to early 2000's, Steve Ballmer at Microsoft vehemently tried to knock Palm out of the competitive landscape. While Microsoft focused on delivering features, Hawkins and Palm focused on the user experience, and delivering a simple, solid product. Time proved the effectiveness of Hawkin’s vision, as Microsoft had to give up their efforts at shooting down Palm.

Palm PDA keyboard

Our final event, and another testament to user-centered design, was when Palm decided to move away from their hand-writing system, called Graffiti, toward physical buttons. Despite wide acceptable of Graffiti and pen-based input on PDAs, Palm noticed how many users seemed to prefer physical buttons during user testing.

The move paid off big for Palm, and seems to have set the precedent for other PDA-like devices that launched down the road, and are still launching today.

The value of user testing and iterative development have been apparent since the inception of advanced technology, and it’s our turn, as designers, to continue proving the value of user feedback and iterative development. Let’s be like Hawkins.