Origin of UX

Rohit Behl Designer
6 min readJun 16, 2020

First of all, I would like to thank you Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) for this learning and knowledge on the actual origin of user experience.

Have you ever thought how User Experience comes in picture and who invented this? You will often hear the phrases “user-centred”, “human-centred”, “customer-centred” or similar terms, and often used interchangeably depending on the context.

A focus on human means a focus on human psychology. Technology and design may change over time, but human psychology — our desires, emotions and motivations — changes very little. Thus, from a purely psychological perspective, what made a user interface successful in the 1970s is the very same as what makes one successful today.

let’s compare the two men in the pictures. They live in different centuries with technologies that — from a technical point of view — are completely different. However, the designers of each system have applied the very same psychological and sociological knowledge/methods/concepts/insights in spite of the fact that so many technological advances have taken place in the decades between the two. Their technology may be vastly different, but their psychological apparatus are identical, and their needs to get things done in collaboration with their colleagues (sociologically) are also identical.

Three different incidents around the world which raised the requirement of a simple user experience | 3 button designs from 3 different decades

A simple button… that should be pretty easy to design, right? Well, as you will see, that’s not exactly the case. Even a simple button can prove to be a massive design challenge.

Button 1 (late 1970s): Press here to avoid a nuclear catastrophe!

I’ll start with an example from back in 1979. The Three Mile Island accident was a partial nuclear meltdown that occurred on March 28, 1979, in Pennsylvania, United States. It was the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history and was rated a “5” on the 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale. The following image shows the control room and the wealth of buttons and confusing controls that turned out to be the cause of the catastrophe.

The control room where badly designed buttons and labels caused nothing less than a nuclear accident. Here, President Jimmy Carter is touring the Three Mile Island 2 control room on April 1st, 1979.

The nuclear accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system and was worsened by a valve being stuck open, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. However, the operators of the nuclear power plant did not make any attempts to close the valve. Why? Well, a whole team of investigators spent the following months investigating just that.

During the investigation, they discovered that the user interface in the reactor control room had big usability problems. Despite the critical valve being stuck open, a status indicator on the control panel seemed to indicate that the valve was closed. In fact, the status light did not even indicate whether the valve was open or closed, but only whether it was powered or not! The status indicator thus gave false evidence of a closed valve, and when the control room operators were unable to interpret the meaning of the light correctly, they could not correctly diagnose the problem for several hours. By this time, major damage had occurred.

As Grand Old Man of User Experience, Don Norman, explains: “The control room and computer interfaces at Three Mile Island could not have been more confusing if they had tried.”

In other words, the design of a simple “on/off” button — and accompanying status indicator — can cost vast numbers of human lives and nuclear catastrophes. And when they do, we often do not blame “bad design” (which we should) but instead blame it on the “humans” and call it “human error”. In fact, over 90% of industrial accidents are blamed on “human error”. If it were 5%, we might believe it — but 90%? That means that humans are almost always to blame for accidents.

“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.”

Donald Arthur Norman | Inventor of UX

Button 2 (2000): Press a button to decide who gets to rule our country

Another one that drew enormous attention, was the set of buttons of the so-called “butterfly ballot”, which was used in 2000 in Palm Beach County, Florida, for the U.S. presidential election. George Bush needed to win in Florida to become president, and he got some unexpected help from the button design of the electronic voting system.

In the image below, the Democratic Party is listed second in the column on the left. However, if you pressed the second button in the yellow column of buttons, you will actually vote for the Reform Party, listed in the right column. To vote for the Democratic Party (listed second), you need to press the third button in the yellow column. Thus, George Bush’s rival, Al Gore from the Democratic Party, lost many thousands of votes, which instead went to the Reform Party.

Poor designs can lead to confusion and — potentially — chaos and major democratic problems when large numbers of voters mismark their ballots. Being a designer is an enormous responsibility, but you should embrace it! Design helps us prevent nuclear catastrophes and it even helps us get the people we trust to run our countries.

Behold the infamous butterfly ballot, which caused thousands of voters to vote for the wrong party — unintentionally. After an intense recount process and the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, Governor George W. Bush officially won Florida’s electoral votes by a margin of only 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast, and, as a result, the entire presidential election. The process was extremely divisive, and led to calls for electoral reform in Florida.

Button 3 (2015): Press here to suddenly switch off your engine while driving at high speed

Let’s take a more recent example of yet another seemingly “simple button”. In 2015, precisely 13,574 cars of the American brand Lincoln were recalled because the Start/Stop button of the car had to be moved. The reason? Drivers accidentally pushed their cars’ Start/Stop button while driving at full speed. Turning a car off while it’s driving at high speed is hardly the safest move, especially if you’re not expecting it.

The designers at Lincoln had placed the Start/Stop button right below the “S” button, which stands for “Sport”. Drivers would usually intend to press the “Sport” / “S” when driving at high speeds, and their attention would obviously be limited because they needed to keep their eyes on the road. The result was that some drivers unintentionally pressed the “Engine Stop” button instead of the “S” button right above it. This meant that they unintentionally — and abruptly — stopped their cars while driving at high speed.

Lincoln had to recall the 13,574 cars and then move the button to the top of the column of buttons — as a kind of “usability patch”. By placing the “Sport” / “S” at the very opposite end of the column, they lowered the likelihood of the drivers’ accidentally pressing “Stop engine” while driving at high speed.

The above examples show that designers have, time and again, committed design mistakes because they have ignored or overlooked the way our minds operate. They underscore how important it is for us, as designers, to take into consideration human psychology and sociology. Sometimes, a simple design flaw can cause an extremely costly disaster!