A brief history of interface design

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This article was written by
Magdiel Juárez, Backend Developer at Umvel

Punched Card ‘Computer’ (1960)

The complex era in which we find ourselves today, promises new and different ways of communicating, as a response to the COVID-19 ‘surprise’ lockdown a year ago. With the development of science, new technological devices continue to be invented and with them, new and creative ways of interaction.

Inventing new ways interaction with devices (and each other) is the domain of Interaction Design (IxD). This are is involved in innovating the way we communicate, by means of the devices we use

Full canvas where users can interact with the whole body.

In the way Interaction Design Foundation describes it:

or, how Kolko (2010) defined it, when he wrote:

Overtime, we have come to understand that in order to make our user-interface communication successful, we need the right processes. Currently, most companies use methodologies such as Design Thinking, Design Sprint, Lean UX, and Agile UX as ways to organize each project. The way these methodologies have emerged, and can be differentiated from one another in the context of which the product is developed depends on the variations it may need to accommodate to its complexity.

There are stages for each one, but for now we’re focusing on the four elementary parts that they all share: analysis, design, implementation and validation.

(Interface design process based on Design Thinking)

For many years they’ve been considered fundamental stages of interface design. Long before we involved psychology and the more ‘emotional’ side of experiences (which led to the practice of UX design), there was simply the process of ‘interface design’ in its purest form. This referred to:

The creation of interfaces was defined by a group of people who wanted to recreate and program tasks in such a way that they could perform calculations on a computer. The problem was that all tasks had to be written before the computer was turned on. Funny anecdote: when Bill Gates first developed its first Microsoft product: BASIC, he did so without access to a computer — writing all code on a piece of paper before being able to test it.

They needed to perform the same processes and input new instructions after it had been put to work. Through this need, the first interfaces were born. These were basically a channel of communication, through which it was possible to exchange information between a person and a computer in real time.

Our current interfaces know the language of the computer and that of the user, so it can translate people’s instructions into a language that the computer understands. Nowadays we see platforms that are not only functional, but also beautiful, but also beautiful. In the beginning, visual aesthetics weren’t at all important. Remember which were the first interfaces you interacted with?

First input and output devices. Example: The first mouse on a mac

Although the interfaces were not initially graphical, we soon realized that something had to be done to make graphical user interfaces (GUI). Back in the day there weren’t any designers looking at improving software usage. You only had software developers, who started to develop increasingly complex systems, as computers were evolving and reaching a level of sophistication that allowed them to perform calculations faster.

I’m sure these developers had their software memorized from A to Z, and knew how to use it perfectly, but the problem was: they were not the group of people that were going to use the product! This is when we hit another wall: we already had a computer that could display a ‘visual representation of the software’. We now had to also show an interface that was understandable and useful for its users.

With this in mind, developers started taking interface comprehension into consideration, without realizing that their logic wouldn’t necessarily be everyone else’s. So, although being finally understandable, software programs and devices were still seen as complicated and few people could use.

And so, designers stepped in and started making the appearance more appealing. They came up with rules that could be applied to any type of software to help navigate it better. Some designers even went a little overboard with the aesthetic aspect and came up with tools that were too beautiful to use. This taught everyone a valuable lesson; a system capable of being understood by a user embraces 3 main concepts, all key elements of usability:

  • effectiveness
  • efficiency and
  • satisfaction

Thus, the interface design process became important and the definition of its stages were mainly directed by the software engineering and development processes. These processes were dictated by classical methodologies (Waterfall Model) and later agile models (Spiral Model).

Typical waterfall software design process
spiral software engineering methodology

Generally, the process flows as follows: before starting a new project, an analysis of the customer’s requirements is done (e.g.: ‘give the user the ability to personalize his/her profile’). These are then formulated as use cases (‘As a user, I want to upload a picture to my profile’). Those use cases lead us to a first design proposal (or several), which are presented to its stakeholders.

After the stakeholders choose the proposal they like most, realization starts. A team will implement the defined use cases. At the end of one (or several) iterations, an approval or validation is given by the client. After that validation, we start testing for possible errors, which aid in improving interface and functionality.

However, software development is not a linear and definitive process. It’s constantly evolving, and throughout time, interface design has proven to be a combination of classic and agile methodologies. It started as part of software design, but took its own path to finally detach from this, and explore its own life — outside the algorithmic. Through psychology, sociology, history, and anthropology, interface design grew and developed into a practice of its own. As a result, it allowed us to create products and services people can empathize with, and generate emotions..

(Photo taken from: http://ita.grupoiruna.com/inyectando-empatia-a-los-robots-pero-no-la-asume-como-propia/)

Current interaction design methodologies have been indispensable for the success of many projects and are the pacemaker of many companies. They support the design of products that are useful for the user, and they are easy to use and generate positive experiences. It’s important to get to know and understand the fundamental theoretical bases that support and inspire today’s methodologies. This way we can have the historical perspective of an interaction design process and the innovative perspective in which the physical and emotional context is taken into account. Ultimately, this is how we can steer the interaction design process towards success.

Bibliography:

  • Stone, D., Jarrett, C., Woodroffe M. & Minocha, S. (2005). User interface design and evaluation.
  • Córdoba-Cely, C. (2013). The user experience: from utility to artifact. Iconofacto 9 (12), pp. 56–70.
  • Sommerville, I. (2011). Software Engineering (9th ed.).

Check out https://umvel.com for more about our work, methods, and how we can work with you (as a colleague, or partner).

We build businesses for challengers. We are a US/Mexico based software development firm that creates custom digital solutions across all industries.

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