What is Interaction Design History?

How do you distinguish the history of interaction design or user experience design from the broader scope of computing history?


Learning more about computing history is a sort of professional hobby of mine; I have a fetish for pictures of old mainframes and this research lets me indulge my proclivities. When I tell people in the user experience field about my studies the most common response I hear is “I don’t know anything about the history of computers.”

I think that’s sad. Practitioners in other design disciplines—architecture, graphic design, fashion—would be expected to have some grounding in historical movements and trends. But most people have no formal education in interaction design, and so they’ve never learned the roots of the discipline. I taught a short course in IxD history in the MFA program in Interaction Design at SVA, and I hope that the students in the program know enough now to at least recognize key people and events when they come up, even if their introduction was a whirlwind 5-week tour.

The interesting question, to me, is how you separate interaction design history from the broader scope of computing history in general. User experience people gravitate toward the history of hypertext and the graphical user interface, direct manipulation and the mouse, the work done at Xerox PARC and Apple. In many people’s minds, that era marks the dividing line between the “us” of the design community and the “them” of computer scientists, because it’s the point at which it became possible to draw a separation between the work that was done to serve the needs of the machine, and the work that was done solely to meet the needs of the user.

I’m fascinated by the earlier history of punchcards and mainframes, green screen CRTs and command line interfaces, precisely because that process of shaping the machine to think and talk more like we do was more formative and more raw. And while many (if not most) of the decisions that went into the design of early computing systems were based on the memory and processor requirements of the physical machine, engineers were also making decisions aimed at making the device easier to use. Separate out the aspects that are focused purely on hardware limitations, and the history of punched cards, programming languages and mainframe operating systems is as important to the history of the discipline as the mouse, the GUI, or the touchscreen.

In 2008 I taught a five-week short course in interaction design history in the MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts.

Week 1: Course Overview

This was intended as a high-level flyover of some of the people and topics I covered over the next three weeks.

Week 2: Interaction Design before Computers

Make no mistake: my definition of interaction design is squarely focused on how people communicate and interact with machines. (I know it’s fashionable to talk about interaction design as influencing human behavior, regardless of medium, but that’s an awfully broad scope for a history class.) Of course, people were imagining or using complex information processing devices even before there were computers.

Week 3: Computing Technology in the Workplace

My favorite section; I wish I could spend more time on this era, exploring how early programming languages and operating systems made it easier (and yet harder) to use a computer—in fact, what it meant to “use” a mainframe. This quote always kills me: “Not only would a programmer hardly ever see the computer, he or she might never even see the keypunch on which the programs were entered into the mainframe.” —Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing

Week 4: Personal Computing

Seems like everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the history of the graphical user interface across Xerox PARC, Apple, and Microsoft. Equally interesting is the cultural shift from mainframes to personal computing, regardless of the interface metaphor.

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