Philip Levy

February 6, 2023

How old is the practice of User Experience Design?

According to Wikipedia (with sources referencing IBM and the Interaction Design Foundation), user experience design, or UX design, is rooted in the fields of human factors and ergonomics dating back to the 1940s. As mass production began to hit its stride, industrial designers like Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes began to look more methodically at the interaction between humans and machines. (Dreyfuss in particular did really interesting work measuring body types so his designed objects and environments were better adapted to the humans who used them.)

In the early 1990s, Don Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things) coined the term user experience design while working at Apple to describe the total experience of interacting with a brand, from marketing to sales to the eventual use of the product. Although he intended the term to be used much more broadly, UX design has come to be mostly associated with the combination of functional and visual design (and supporting research) that goes into producing digital products and services, like websites, apps, and the devices we use them on.

Sitting here in 2023, it would seem the practice of UX design goes back about 30 years or so. But as I was reading Plato’s The Republic recently, I was delighted to see that it may, in fact, be much older. Like at least 2,380 years old.

After he has thoroughly explored the questions of what is justice and whether it’s inherently beneficial to be “good,” Socrates returns to the role of artists in society. He distinguishes between “makers” who build things and “artists” who make representations of things. With some minor editing for style, this description of the interplay between designer/maker and user and the important feedback loop between them could be found in any modern course on the subject (translation by Desmond Lee, italics are the translator’s, bolded phrases are mine):

And isn’t the quality, beauty, and fitness of any implement… judged by reference to the use for which man… produced it?

It must follow, then, that the user of a thing has the widest experience of it and must tell the maker how well it has performed its function in the use to which he puts it.

The maker of an implement, therefore, has a correct belief about its merits and defects, but he is obliged to get this by associating with and listening to someone who knows. And the person with the relevant knowledge is the user.

In this short passage, in what is almost an appendix of one of the most influential philosophic works in history, we clearly see the concept of developing a hypothesis about the usefulness of a design for a particular purpose while needing to validate that hypothesis with someone who has the appropriate knowledge and experience — the user. If we were to summarize one of the core activities of UX Design, we might agree that it would be to “associate with and listen to someone who knows” about the context you’re designing for.

It’s one of the most important precepts of our field today — that we must place the user at the center of the design process — and we can see it here in almost the same language we use, but written in circa 357 BCE, in ancient Greece.

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