All I Need to Know About User-Centered Design I Learned One Summer at Apple

Kristy Knabe
May 14 · 3 min read
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I loved the old rainbow Apple. Looked great on a t-shirt!

In 1991, I was in grad school at Carnegie Mellon and I got a summer internship at Apple Computer. Little did I know this would be a life-changing summer. My internship was with Apple’s fledgling User-Aided Design team, a team started by a small segment of people who worked in the Instructional Products group who were responsible for writing Apple’s user manuals. Back then Apple shipped products with beautiful 4-color manuals. I wish I had a few of those today — they would be on my coffee table.

Personal computing was an emerging technology in 1991 and most people were pretty intimidated by the thought of having a computer on their desk. So the manuals had to explain everything from unpacking the box (which is how the Set Up Poster originated) to how to turn on the computer. Even the desktop metaphor was new — so usability testing was critical to product success. Did the illustrations make sense? Was the packaging organized so the user could figure out what to do first, what to do next? Did the first steps in an online tutorial (Macromedia!) make sense to even the most novice user? Only the users could really tell us how the hardware, software, packaging and documentation came together to form an integrated product.

That summer I learned the think-aloud protocol. I learned how to give users instructions about usability research and how to have them sign an NDA. I learned to run elaborate soundboards and recording equipment in a test lab. I learned to interact with users through one-way glass and find ways to make them comfortable even when the test protocols could be pretty intimidating. I learned how to write tasks from a user’s point of view and watch users without saying much at all. I learned to ask “what would you expect” and “what do you think” more than I could ever imagine! I learned to analyze users’ comments, questions and actions. I learned to edit video on very difficult video editing equipment to create those few critical highlights for the stakeholders and management team. I was with the group who were organizing the Usability Professionals Association’s (UPA) first annual conference in Orem, Utah so I learned the value of meeting with other people who were dedicated to improving usability. I also was fortunate to learn what went into organizing a professional conference. Those were exciting times.

I was hired full-time at Apple in January 1992 and worked there throughout the 90s. Those were challenging years at Apple but the User-Aided Design group grew and usability was a main focus of product design. I saw some products succeed and many more fail. But the “failures” always led to better products, experiences and designs. So Apple’s bad years in the 90s led to some very (very!) good years down the line. And a lot of the user research informed product designs.

I have spent almost 30 years in the User-Centered Design field. Somewhere along the way, we became UX Researchers, UX Strategists, UXers. The UPA became the UXPA. I have worked in many different industries, on marketing teams, engineering teams, product design teams and in innovation and ideation labs. It has been a great career that I continue to love.

And some things have changed. There are no labs with fancy equipment and one-way mirrors anymore. The video editing takes hours and not weeks. Recruiting users is much easier and incentives cost much less. But most of what I learned that summer in 1991 at Apple I still use every day. Or at least every week. The basics of User-Centered Design have stood the test of time — watch users, don’t just ask; define primary users and tasks and support them in design; iterative testing is the most effective so test early and test often; and decide key product design decisions in the lab (virtual now) and not the conference room.

The summer of 1991 changed my life. And a few products changed too thanks to the skills I learned.

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