Computing History

Why technology history matters

I am a huge nerd for computing history, particularly the history of interaction design. I think the story of how designers figured out ways to make computers easier for people to use is just plain fascinating. I’ve given talks on this subject for about five years now.

When I tell people a little bit about this they say things like “That sounds really interesting, I would love to take that class” and “I wish I you would come over to my house and tell me more about that” or “I would give up my addiction to playing Civilization if only you’d come over to my house and tell me more about that.”

Attendees at my talks say nice things afterward like “You were right, that really was fascinating” and “I didn’t know any of that, and I am better off now that I do” and “That was almost as fun as playing Civilization.”

When I give talks about this at conferences, and I meet people in the hallway before my session, here’s what they say: “I’d love to come, but I should really go to this session about SEO/social media/mobile app development/HTML5.”

I understand.

You’re spending the boss’s (or your own) money, and you want to get something of tangible value out of your conference time. Something you can put to good use when you go back to work. A talk about history just doesn’t seem very practical.

I believe the (short) history of our field is still relevant to our work today, if only we knew more about it. The conventions we follow, the interface metaphors we take for granted, the patterns we rely on—these didn’t spring out of nowhere. They evolved over time. People—people not unlike us—invented and refined them. Learning more about how all these decisions happened helps inform our own work. The story of the history of technology is the story of how we learned to understand our own behavior: how we learn, how we move, how we see, how we make choices. We taught machines to get smarter and friendlier and more responsive because we learned more about ourselves.

This missive is aimed mostly at the people who will be attending IxD11 in Boulder but who haven’t registered for my workshop with Bill DeRouchey, called Interaction Design History for Interaction Designers. Consider signing up, will you? I promise it will be relevant, informative, and inspiring. And entertaining.

But I want to make a point that applies to everyone, even if you’re not coming to Boulder. Take a moment and marvel at how far technology has come in the past hundred years or so. Particularly be amazed at the rapid evolution of digital computing over the past 65 years—and then get dizzy thinking about how much more work we have to do. Pay your respects to all the inventors and pioneers who made the decisions that got us here today. Maybe someday, there will be a designer looking back and giving thanks to you.

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Computing History

Interaction Design History Sources

Want to learn more about the history of interaction design? This is where I started:

Pre-computing History

Early interaction design, from the earliest systems for tabulating and managing information. Starts in the late 1800s with innovations in business information systems, punched card systems, and major wartime innovations in human factors. Ends with the development of the first computing systems during WWII.

Professional Computing, Mainframe, and Command Line History

The role of computing and information systems in professional contexts, including post-war developments in academic, scientific, and corporate environments. Covers early mainframe systems, programming languages, and command line interfaces, the invention of the transistor, as well as early research and theory into hypertext and other support for human cognition.

Personal Computing, GUI, and Internet History

The onset of personal computing, in the form of low-cost computing systems available to individual users. Focuses on the development of the graphical user interface and its impact on personal and professional use, with some review of more recent history, including the internet and mobility.

General Interaction Design History Resources

Resources related to the overall history of user-centered design, including the history of human factors, HCI, and interaction design disciplines.

General Computing History Resources

Resources related to the overall history of computing, including major university and corporate archives.

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Computing History, Presentations

What is Interaction Design History?

The IBM Naval Ordnance Research Calculator

Image Credit: Columbia University 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.


I’ve finally got around to uploading my classroom presentations to Slideshare:

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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Computing History, Presentations

Foundations of Interaction Design

In 2007 I conducted a three-hour session on the history of interaction design for Smart Experience in New York. I’m a big fan of teaching about the historical underpinnings of our field, particularly since so many people working today don’t know the background of the discipline. Learning how the field evolved is an important part of education in other design disciplines like architecture or graphic design, and it should be equally important for students of interaction design.

To that end, I will be teaching a longer version of this course in the new MFA program in interaction design at SVA starting in Fall 2009.

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Computing History, Presentations

From typing to swiping: interaction design has come a long way!

In July of 2008 I presented at the first Ignite NYC event. The Ignite format is demanding for a speaker: 20 slides which auto-advance after 15 seconds for a total of 5 minutes. It also takes place in a bar, so the environment can be a bit raucous. Someone told me afterwards “if you can do that, you can perform in the Superbowl half-time show.”

This presentation includes both the actual slides and the bullet point speaking script I memorized.

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