Design follows technology. 2/2

The user interface design (UI). Where we are and how we got here.

The development of the industrialised world accelerated with the invention of the computer in the 1940s and went ballistic with the emergence of the web in 1990s.

Previously: Graphic design and industrial design. Where we are and how we got here.


In 1996 Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown from Xerox PARC, published the paper The Coming Age of Calm Technology. They pointed out three (and a half) stages in the development of computing:  


THE MAINFRAME ERA is the The first stage that began in the 1940s with computers that were mostly run by experts behind closed doors. A computer was a scarce resource, one whose time had to be negotiated and shared with others. One computer, many people.
THE PERSONAL COMPUTER ERA or the second stage. In 1984 the number of people using personal computers surpassed the number of people using shared computers. The personal computing relationship became personal, even intimate. One person, one computer.
THE INTERNET started the distributed computing era in which millions of people, organisations, and businesses became interconnected. “The Internet brings together elements of the mainframe era and the PC era. It is client-server computing on a massive scale – with PCs as web clients and web servers the mainframes (without a MIS department in charge). Although transitional, the results of the massive interconnection of personal, business, and governmental information will create a new field and medium against which the next great relationship will emerge.”
UBIQUTOUS COMPUTING (UBICOMP) “will have lots of computers sharing each of us. Some of these computers will be the hundreds we may access in the course of a few minutes of internet browsing. Others will be imbedded in walls, chairs, clothing, light switches, cars – in everything. UC is fundamentally characterised by the connection of things in the world with computation. This will take place on many scales, including the microscopic.”


The development of the Graphic User Interface (GUI) in the 1970s by Xerox PARC – which was later copied and brought to the mainstream by Steve Jobs at Apple with the Apple Macintosh in 1984 – boosted the need for user interface design (UI).

Interface design was not something entirely new, a lot of analogue devices — think the telephone, the gas oven, or the alarm clock —  need an interface to operate them as well. But their interfaces, mostly knobs and levers, were one function only, they served one purpose, and their position on the device was fixed. But with the new operating systems and with multiple applications (programs) running on a single computer, the computer screen became a canvas that displays the data and the interfaces of different applications at different times.

The UI designers of the Xerox Alto personal computer in 1973 and the Apple MacIntosh a decade later, set the standard interface metaphor of a desktop, and set the pictograms and icons for the computer environment such as trash bin, file, folder, etc. It was a good way to get users new to the technology to migrate and adopt the personal computer on a large scale. With a mouse-driven graphical user interface and the familiar “desktop” metaphor, users didn’t have to type abstract command lines into a text interface anymore, but started to use a familiar on-screen environment where files looked like pieces of paper, directories looked like file folders, and one could delete a file by dragging it to a trash-can icon.

The GUI replicated the real world in order to serve as a transitional aid to adopters of the new technology. The same role was played by much ridiculed “skeuomorphic” user interfaces of the early touchscreen-only mobile and tablet devices a couple of decades later. In hindsight and for the digital natives it might look absurd, but it served very well as a bridge to the new technology for users who met a completely new technology for the first time.


USER INTERFACE DESIGN (UI). The introduction of a Graphic User Interface (GUI) and the desktop metaphor brings easy-to-use computers to the masses. No special coding skills were needed, since the typing of command lines was replaced by pointing and dragging icons of familiar objects in familiar functions.


Computers, and especially mobile digital devices, became actually many different devices/products in one. Consider the most extreme one, the telephone. The original land line telephone had only one function, to talk to the person on the other side of the wire. Even early mobile phones had that basic functionality and added only a few more like messaging and an e-mail reader. The launch of the original iPhone in 2007 established a completely new category, the smart phone. While it is still named a phone, there are many products in one device that are with the user all the time.

The device itself is a stack of physical products, i.e. a telephone, a photo and video camera, an audio recorder and player, and can be even more software products. By running one of thousands of applications, the user turns the same device into thousands of different products at different times. It can be a navigation device, a calculator, a fitness tracker, a typewriter, an airplane or concert ticket, a magazine, banking outlet, etc. Practically all industries moved to some degree to mobile and digital platforms, thereby challenging old practices and business models.  


ONE DEVICE, MANY PRODUCTS. Steve Jobs in 2007 famously announced Apple iPhone as “An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator.” “These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.” A decade later, this single device can be more than two million different products — the number of applications available for the device — and almost anyone with basic  coding skills can create a new product for the device.


The number of products and the new form of a digital product radically increased the number of products on the market. As was the case at the beginning of the printing revolution, printers and publishers designed for print. In the first stages, mechanical engineers designed the industrial product, and digital products were designed by software engineers., However, very soon new specialisations (professions) emerged, including the User Interface designer, digital product designer, the user experience designer, or the information architect.

A new class of designers are dealing with the ever-growing number of products (of all types; physical, digital and services) enabled by ever lower prices of development, manufacturing, and distribution, technical possibilities, the exponential growth of computing power, and connected data and devices.

In 1996, Weiser and Brown established the need for what they called “The Calm Technology.” They argued, “the most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm. If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control.”

“When computers are all around, so that we want to compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context, and technology of the computer and all the other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next 50 years.


CALM TECHNOLOGY. Weiser and Brown wrote as early as 1997: “There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming?” The role of a designer is to come up with products and services that feel seamless and ‘super normal,’ and that do not compete for users’ attention.


Next: To cope with the overwhelming number of products, messages, channels, media, and choices, designers start taking decisions on the behalf of the users.


The Brand Ecosystem Design Blog is a part of a book in the making. In the coming months, we’ll build up our case from looking at where we are and how we got here, to develop the framework, tools, and language to understand and manage the brand ecosystem.

Matevž Medja is a co-founder of the award-winning design agency Gigodesign, with more than 25 years of experience in building interdisciplinary teams on complex projects. He believes the world is already too full of products nobody needs and brands nobody believes in. He’d like to help develop new ones properly. Read more.