History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 1

The first part of an ongoing series about the history of the user experience field in Michigan. In these early sections, we set the stage by examining the pre-history of UX.

The Michigan user experience professional community has grown significantly in the past 20 years—particularly the last 10—but it has roots that are older.

Due largely to the automotive industry, this region has a relatively long history of researchers and professionals in human factors, one of UX’s ancestors. Today there is little interaction between human factors and the UX communities. However, as the UX’s academic ancestor, human-computer interaction discipline (HCI), emerged in the late 70s and early 80s, there was more interaction between these communities.

Some of the faculty at the University of Michigan were also involved in establishing the HCI field. Although the university has always been more focused on the national and international HCI community, it went on to provide a valuable foothold for the early days of the professional community.

The user experience field formed as a response to technological change—by the explosion in the number of personal computers combined with the dawn of the modern internet. This was true in Michigan, and the UX community was shaped by the social conditions of active academic communities and local industries. This chapter looks at the landscape of Michigan before the growth of UX in the mid-90s.

Human Factors and Ergonomics

Long before the growth of the user experience field and continuing to this day, Michigan has been home to several human factors and ergonomics professionals, focused mainly on the automotive industry. These professionals have academic counterparts working at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), and together they have a community in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). Despite both fields being concerned with humans’ interaction with technology, there has never been close ties between human factors and UX in Michigan.

The field of human factors and ergonomics has roots in the 19th century (although the idea of designing tools according to ergonomic principles is ancient). Frederick Winslow Taylor was an early pioneer in human factors in ergonomics. His “scientific management” method sought to extend control over workers’ bodies in order to extract more labor from them by quantifying and optimizing their work. “Scientific management” closely analyzed workers’ movements to determine the optimal set of movements and configuration of tools. The quantification of human behavior went on to become an important aspect of creating a scientific discipline around designing for human capabilities.

The human factors disciplined emerged during World War II in response to the invention of complex machines, such as a new generation of aircraft. At this point, the concept of measuring human capabilities moved away from the explicit exploitative goal of “scientific management” to attempting to make machines that accommodated human capabilities. Designing airplane cockpits that acknowledged the limits of physical and cognitive abilities was an urgent safety matter.

In the decades after World War II, human factors and ergonomics research expanded beyond aviation, such as into the automotive industry, and flourished.

Human Factors and Ergonomics in Michigan

Metro Detroit is home to the the companies that have historically dominated the American automotive industry. Human factors and ergonomics plays an important role in interior design for automobiles, and as a result Michigan has been home to a still-growing community of human factors specialists.

Although there is a professional organization for these professionals, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) has never had an active chapter in Southeast Michigan. However, the University of Michigan is home to a long-standing student chapter[1]. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) also has a local chapter[2] and this international organization holds large events in Michigan on a regular basis[3].

The University of Michigan is home to several human factors researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which was founded in 1965 to research motor vehicle safety[4]. One of UMTRI’s sources of funding is auto companies that commission research.

There are other pockets of human factors engineering throughout Michigan. Beside UMTRI, the University of Michigan is also the home of the Center for Ergonomics, founded in 1959 to conduct ergonomics research. Another is at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) National Center for Patient Safety, which has one of its two locations at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. The National Center for Patient Safety “was established in 1999 to lead the VA’s patient safety efforts and to develop and nurture a culture of safety throughout the Veterans Health Administration[5].”

[1] http://www.umich.edu/~hfes/Webpages/index.html
[2] http://www.sae.org/membership/sections/list/
[3] http://www.sae.org/events/
[4] http://www.umtri.umich.edu/who-we-are
[5] http://www.patientsafety.va.gov/about/organization.asp