UX in the Mid-90s: Selling People on UX

The mid 90s (say, 1992-1996 or so) sound like a very interesting time for user experience. My history project has given me the opportunity to talk about this time period – a time period where I was not, let’s say, particularly concerned with UX, web design, or even the Internet, for the most part.

It was during this time period that the modern web browser was invented. Whereas before you connected to servers and downloaded documents, Mosaic, this first browser did, well, pretty much what you would expect a browser to do. Except that it was the first one to do so. Suddenly you could pull up web pages full of text and pictures and follow links to other web pages.

During these years, businesses started hopping on the Internet, more as a matter of prestige rather than a practical need to do any business online. Individual people became interested in building their own websites, and came to the conclusion that they could make some money doing this for other people.

Some of those people that enjoyed building websites are people that I’ve been interviewing. They started web design businesses along with a whole bunch of other people – by the time you got to 1995 and 1996, there was an explosion of web design firms.

Back then, the idea of user experience hadn’t penetrated as widely as it has today. Nowadays, UX is widely known as a critical component of a successful business, such that there’s supposedly a huge demand for UX professionals. Twenty years ago, it was necessary to sell potential clients on the idea of UX, as something that would make a website more successful than a pretty but unusable one, for example. It’s like UX was just one of multiple areas that a web design firm could specialize in.

But maybe that’s the way it’s always been, even today. It sure sounds like everybody is on board with the idea that UX is critical to a successful website, but it’s also an all-too-easy concern to jettison the moment a project runs into trouble.

How the UX Field Grew

I think that the expansion in the user experience field followed the growth and spread of computers. This may not be news to other people, and isn’t really a big surprise to me, but until I started the history project, I didn’t think quite so explicitly about the timeline.

UX’s roots go back far, but the human-computer interaction field, probably the start of usability or user experience proper, takes shape around the late 1970s and early 1980s. This field is, for the most part, filled with academics. One of the drivers of this growth is the spread of mainframes and then minicomputers away from academia and out into the business world, where suddenly these complicated machines had to be used by non-scientists. People in computing and psychology noticed suspected that these machines could be designed in a user-centered way, and thus human-computer interaction started to coalesce.

The field stayed mostly academic for much of its first decade. However, going into the late 80s and early 90s, microcomputers (AKA personal computers) came on the scene in a serious way and spread computing even further into the world. There were more and more practitioners working outside of academia to make computers easier to use, and while they took what knowledge they could from the academic CHI conference and from academic papers, there was a movement to start a professional organization that catered to practitioners.

Thus, UPA was born in the 90s, and, in time, other organizations related to user experience.

I still struggle with a good explanation for why a group like the UXPA struggles for membership nowadays. Perhaps it’s the result of our field’s success—with so many practitioners, there are so many opportunities to learn and to network with other practitioners, that there is a necessary fragmentation of professional organizations.


822AC9AD-DD61-4F3A-AF99-9536802B1C3CA couple of times a week on the MacBook Pro (or Apple keyboard), I accidentally hit F4, come face to face with the incomprehensible screen full of unorganized icons, and back out quickly.

As I researched this post, I learned that this feature is called Launchpad and that it has something to do with the (anticipated?) convergence of desktop and mobile operating system experiences. I guess when you combine Launchpad with the Dock is OSX, it’s kind of like the way iOS organizes apps.

But, wow, when you first encounter Launchpad in an uncurated stated, it is an incomprehensible jumble. I guess it’s organized according to the order in which things were installed. How is it useful in a world where people tuck everything they need into the dock? It’s not like the average person uses that many different applications.

As part of my research, I settled down and tried to organize Launchpad, which was a nightmare of awkwardly holding down a button on my keyboard and moving icons around. Icons that didn’t want to move between the multiple screens of Launchpad. And sometimes I just had to touch the Option key once, and sometimes I had to hold it down. By the way, some icons are deletable, and most are not, which meant that I just kept shoving applications I barely use into one big folder.

I suppose that means I’m using Launchpad the wrong way – after all, it’s clearly meant to be a place where you keep every single program on your computer. In the end, I used the first screen to hold icons for all the applications I actually use on a regular basis, and left everything as a jumble in the next 3 screens.

It’s not like I’m going to start using Launchpad, anyway. I use Quicksilver and just type what I want (if it isn’t already open).

The Beginning of SIGCHI and Ann Arbor

One story I’ve heard while talking to Professor Paul Green at the University of Michigan is about the formation of ACM SIGCHI. I knew that this is a venerable organization, but I didn’t know exactly when it started. Paul spoke about his recollection of events from 35 years ago, so an article written by Lorraine Borman, one of the founders of SIGCHI, helped pin down the dates.

Apparently, back in 1978, ACM SIGSOC (Social and Behavioral Computing) had a conference in the Washington, DC. According to Paul, they invited Al Chapanis as the speaker, who had the been the president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) and was well known for his work in human factors and computer systems. In Borman’s article, she writes that “SIGSOC presented what may have been the first ACM panel presentation on the user interface at the ACM Conference… ‘People-oriented Systems: When and How?’” which Borman chaired.

ACM SIGSOC had planned for 200 people to show up at their conference, but instead something like 600 people showed up, including many human factors folks. After this meeting, some of the folks involved in it—specifically, the University of Michigan’s Greg Marks and Lorraine Borman—thought that they were on to something. They saw a connection between the computing people and the human factors people, so a group of people from the meeting, including Paul Green, met to talk about ways to continue the collaboration.

Thus, ACM SIGCHI was born, because ACM had the resources and the drive to pick up this new idea and run with it. Apparently, there is a story that HFES dropped the ball, so to speak, on bringing in the computing realm together with human factors, but it was more a matter that ACM had resources at the time and HFES did not.

It would be another four years before SIGSOC became SIGCHI in 1982. During this period of change, SIGSOC had a “very successful conference in May 1981 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which had as its focus Human Interaction and the User Interface.”

I had no idea that the University of Michigan played such a role in the forming of ACM SIGCHI.

Attending ALA Midwinter 2015

I recently attended the ALA Midwinter 2015 conference in Chicago (http://alamw15.ala.org/). My work at ITHAKA is a great fusion of my two professional interests: UX and libraries, and this was my first chance to attend a conference for librarians.

It was quite a different experience from the UX conferences I’d been to. It seems like there are at least two kinds of UX conferences: The pure-training kind, where the program consists of sessions where you can learn about stuff. The other kind offers professional development, but also opportunities to further the agenda of the organization. Think UXPA – in addition to listening to talks about UX, you can also meet with other leaders (at the chapter or international level) to talk about the profession.

The ALA is huge, and there seem to be a ton of opportunities for librarians to get involved with the ALA. Much of the sessions were committees and interest groups getting together to talk about whatever they were interested in. That seemed to be the focus – in contrast, UX programs seem to be oriented around the speakers themselves. You pick and choose sessions based on who’s speaking and what they’re speaking about.

The sheer volume of sessions on the program was overwhelming. For any timeslot, there could be dozens, and the timeslots all overlapped with each other. On top of that, you might have to go to an entirely different hotel to get to a session you wanted to attend.

I’m glad I went, though. It was fantastic to immerse myself in the world that librarians live in. There are plenty of folks in that world interested in user experience, so I got to talk shop a few times while I was at the conference.

A Discontinuous Experience with Outlook

Sometimes (maybe often?) I wish that my desktop wasn’t treated as a completely separate platform from the iOS I use on my phone (and occasionally on an iPad).

As I continue to find better ways to deal with email, I recently tried out Microsoft’s Outlook, which they recently acquired from another company and rebranded as theirs. It does some good work – it has the ability to hide messages until you want them back, but it seems to cooperate with the labeling system I put in place for my email. It also has a nice distinction between “important” emails and “not so important emails”.

The problem actually comes in when I want to use this Outlook on my laptop. It turns out Microsoft’s Outlook for the web is actually just their free email service, corresponding to Google’s Gmail and Yahoo!’s Yahoo! Mail. It doesn’t even seem to work the same as the iOS app.

What the heck, Microsoft? You snared me with this clever little app, and then when I try to continue the experience on my laptop, you try to get me to use the latest version of Hotmail. We live in a world where people move across devices. Your product lineup needs to recognize that.

Argus and Information Architecture

Information architecture was invented twice, and one of those times, it happened in Ann Arbor. Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, two librarians in Ann Arbor, began to think about the problem of organizing information on the Internet during the 1990s and ultimately wrote the seminal “Polar Bear Book,” Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Then they started a consulting agency called Argus.

Argus is one of those places in our local professional history that acts as a nexus point. Various members of our community worked there. Argus famously (or, at least, it should be famous) worked for Borders, the now-closed Ann Arbor-based book store. In the days before the Amazon of today, Borders wanted to figure out what to do with the Internet. Argus proposed an online presence where users could buy books online. Borders turned down this idea of, basically, doing what Amazon ended up doing.

Amazon went on to be very successful. Borders entered a slow decline, eventually closing down and taking with it a local institution, a “third place” where people could mingle in their community, and a source of jobs.

Argus closed earlier in the wake of the 2001 bursting of the dot com bubble. It is nevertheless an interesting episode in our local history.

Human Factors on a Snowy Night

Last month, I had the chance to sit down with Paul Green, professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, to talk about his intersection with the local User Experience scene. It was the first interview for my history project and a good start.

I drove from downtown Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan’s North Campus on a cold January night and found my way to Professor Green’s office. It was crowded with years’ worth of papers, reports, files, and books, with just enough space for him to sit at his desk and a guest to sit next to him.

We talked for about an hour and a half about how he came to UMTRI; about the life cycle of professional organizations (which, as it turns out, is a common theme in these interviews), and the formation of ACM SIGCHI. Professor Green is actually a member of the human factors field, which is an important predecessor to human-computer interaction and, ultimately, user experience, and still a highly relevant field today.

When I left the building, everything was covered in a thick layer of fresh snow glinting in the street lights. It was a long, snowy drive home, but worth it.

Learning to Use Inbox

I’ve been trying to use Google’s Inbox for the last few days, without much luck. It’s kind of a similar situation to Mailbox, a few months back.

I’m really on board with the idea of reimagining email, though. My conclusion at this point is that the design of this rather similar apps is that they just don’t work well for me.

The thing is, to really make use of either of them to their full ability, I have to go into Gmail and turn off all the filters that automatically sort most of my messages into folders and bypass the inbox. I also need to think about a new model of handling the “to do” emails. I don’t typically think of my personal* emails as “do now” or “do in a week.” Mostly, they are “do this as soon as you have the energy to do it,” which means that my emails stick around in the inbox or relevant folder, marked unread, until I can handle them. Also, in the past year I really started using Evernote for many things, including keeping track of tasks. I hesitate to open up another source of to-dos.

The ability to make email disappear until I’m ready to handle them sounds really cool, but it’s just not the way I’ve worked – I generally don’t have specific dates where I think I can deal with them.

The bundling capability in Inbox also looks pretty cool but, again, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on my email through heavy use of folders (or labels, if you will).

What I really want to do is try out Inbox for my work email. That’s where I always have emails that I want to follow up with at specific times and have a continuous stream of topics where I can’t really predict how I’ll want to support them. Maybe one day.

*As it turns out, “personal” actually means “personal-for-fun and personal-for-all-professional-activities-outside-my-job.”

Learning to Use a Mouse

Late last year, I was involved in usability testing and encountered something I did not expect to find. Multiple participants were completely defeated by Apple’s Magic Mouse.

Specifically, they couldn’t figure out how to scroll. This problem was compounded by the way that scrollbars vanish by default in more recent versions of OSX. To top it off, the default scroll direction recently reversed in OSX, meaning that even if these participants learned how to use the Magic Mouse, they kept scrolling the wrong way.

I didn’t expect to be helping participants learn how to use a mouse in 2014. Twenty years ago, usability texts discussed how you might find test participants that don’t have computer experience (meaning you might have to train them) and of course the older someone is, the more likely it is that they’re not experienced with computers. And I’m just coming at it from the perspective of usability testing in the USA—of course there are places in the world where people don’t use a mouse.

But we were working with American college students, and Apple made them feel stupid. I like the Magic Mouse, overall. Having the scrollbars vanish doesn’t affect my workflow. And I spent a couple of days training myself to use the new scrolling direction. For someone used to Windows or older versions of Apple’s computers, or someone that just uses a laptop all the time, walking in off the street and trying to use this lab setup was challenging and distracted them from the test tasks.

I’m not sure what to do about it yet. I’m not ready to say that we need to screen people or offer a short training session. I did go back and change the scroll direction, restore the scrollbars to always displaying, and get another mouse with a scroll wheel. Doing these things solved the immediate problem, but I’m just not sure what the long-term implications are.