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1 posts from February 2007

February 27, 2007

Usability from WWII to the present- the historical origins of usability testing

Ivan_sutherlands_sketchpad_1963 Where does usability testing come from? How long has it been around? Is it new, old?

If you are wondering where the methodologies you use come from, you ought to know that there is a very long history (and heaps of military,  academic and corporate research) behind usability techniques.

(Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad 1963 pictured left)

Usability Comes of Age in the "Dot Com" Period

For many, the reference point for usability testing is the dot com boom circa 1998-2001. This is the first time usability testing was used on a wide-scale basis for commercial (e-commerce) purposes. Before this, usability testing was confined to academic or corporate R&D research (Apple, Sun, HP, Bell Labs, AT&T, Microsoft and others). It also marks the first time usability (aka "customer experience") figured significantly in an executive team's decision making process (e.g. Amazon, eTrade, Google, Dell etc).

"In our first year we didn't spend a single dollar on advertising... the best dollars spent are those we use to improve the customer experience."      - Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com

A Historical Time line of Usability Research

For practical purposes we consider World War II the emerging point of usability research. Post WW II is also when the inter-disciplinary field of Cognitive Science was founded. Cognitive Science is the obscure field where usability engineering or HCI (Human Computer Interaction) (aka Human Factors in the US or Ergonomics in Europe) is studied. As early computers and Artificial Intelligence (Nazi code-cracking) emerged, so did the study of how humans process information and perform with computer-based interaction.

Historical Marker 1: 1930-1954

Colonel John C. Flanagan perfects the "Critical Incident Technique"

World War II was the starting point of electronics and electrical systems controlled by human operators through a "user interface".  Industrial psychologists such as John Flanagan discovered that by reducing the amount of buttons, knobs, switches and control panels in new fighter aircraft- they could also dramatically improve operator performance. The P-51 Mustang fighter, for example, "became one of the conflict's most successful and recognizable aircraft".*

Developed by Flanagan, the Critical Incident Technique (or CIT) is a set of procedures  used for collecting direct observations of human behavior that have critical significance and meet methodically defined criteria. These observations are then kept track of as incidents, which are then used to solve practical problems and develop broad psychological  principles. [source: Wikipedia]

In today's parlance: you need to do usability testing because your customer is interacting with your company, brand, product or service through an informational display (website, software application) creating a self-service situation. Any self-service situation with a computer interface will likely cause errors, confusions and failure (if not designed to meet a user's expectations). Observing users perform tasks helps find out what those errors are before it's too late.

For example: compare the Supermarine Spitfire to the P-51 Mustang fighter cockpit (using CIT, an early usability testing technique). [hat tip to Jurek Kirakowski for pointing out this example]


The period 1950-1969 saw an increase in usability research related to computer interfaces (as micro-electronics began its boom). IBM was active in this area early on as were other more academic/ R&D innovators such as Doug Engelbart at SRI; Ivan Sutherland at the University of Utah and Alan Kay (Note: Engelbart, Sutherland and Kay- and others, are known as the inventors of many user interface hardware and software designs that you use today).  Early pioneers such as Sutherland developed advanced interfaces in the late 1960's that are not yet in the public mainstream today, such as virtual reality technology and tablet PC's.

Historical Marker 2: 1970-1983

Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center)

Xerox is largely responsible for much of the innovation in user interfaces (still in use today!). Many know these as WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pulldowns). Xerox R&D work and resulting usability and user interface innovations propelled the current age of corporate usability research.




[above: Xerox Star system. Hat tip to Bruce Damer, inventor of the related Xerox Elixer desktop UI]

Historical Marker 3: 1983-1992

Apple unleashes the Macintosh user interface

Apple's built its design of the personal computer around a strong emotional connection with the user. This was also reflected in their advertising.


above: Apple II- early 1980's... usability takes root in research circles.

Late 1970's usability research exploded in the 1980's (in the R&D sense) with many great achievements in user interfaces adopted by the masses (e.g. Atari jump-started the video game industry with the innovations of usability pioneers Alan Kay and Brenda Laurel for example). Note: If you haven't read any of Brenda Laurel's work, you're missing out...

From the early 1990's to the mid-1990's usability research continued but was more of an R&D hang-over from the boom of portable and personal electronics spurred by the mass adoption of Microsoft's Personal Computer and Windows operating system. Why Microsoft won the PC battle and Mac did not is the subject of David Gelertner's book Machine Beauty.

Historical Marker 4: 1998-2003

Usability becomes recognized as a strategic win to Web site marketing efforts

The mad rush to build the Internet was triggered by the recognition that information could be "easily" indexed and edited with the new mark-up language (HTML). Furthermore, business could be conducted online and products sold through online catalogs or e-commerce sites.


above: Boo.com. Naive Web design tricks such as those epitomized by Boo.com were a wake up call to usability in the early days of the Web.

Unfortunately the ease of learning HTML meant that anyone could play on the Web. Likewise, anyone could run a usability test. Evangelism favoring "just do it" was promoted by experts like Jakob Nielsen and his "Discount or guerilla HCI" and authors such as Steve Krug with his "going out of business usability testing". Nielsen's colleague (Rolf Molich) however, showed that not all usability testing methods and approaches are conducted equally. More in a future post on his findings and the implications of best practice usability testing techniques!

Usability testing solutions exploded with new "bots" like WebCriteria's Max and online panels like Vividence- replacements to "old school usability testing"-- or at least that's how the Sales VP's at these companies positioned usability.  (Disclosure: I worked for WebCriteria and got a bird's eye view into this piece of usability history)

Historical Marker 5: 2004-2007

The Web gets a makeover with Web 2.0 and a focus on User Experience

New energy, new thinking and new players are starting to dominate how things are done on the Web (Yahoo, Google, Flickr, etc.). These new approaches signal a maturity never seen before.

New Web  2.0 start-ups aimed at destabilizing the dominant position of traditional software companies and software applications or tools, dominate today's discussions (just ask a Venture Capitalist what they think about social video or mobile applications-- two hot areas of development at the time of writing).


Above- the logos of Web 2.o (interesting analysis of Web 2.0 logos by Stephen Coles)

Usability is now being recognized (in the USA in particular) as a strategic "win" to Web site marketing efforts. No new Web 2.0 start-up would be caught dead without considering user experience it seems. How many are actually doing usability research? (Not all, and I am not sure of the answer to this... but many are serious about improving usability with their tools and applications). Clients, partners, VC's and end-users are all demanding high standards of usability with your design. I have been tracking this over the past 8 years of my own usability testing at Experience Dynamics. It is amazing to see the tides turning!

Happy Usability Testing!
Frank Spillers, MS (Usability Consultant)

For further interest see: David Meister 's The History of Human Factors and Ergonomics (Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 1999). Chapter 4 covers The Formal History of HFE and Chapter 5 covers The Informal History of HFE.

Disclaimer: the above historical time line is my best effort at explaining what I believe are significant points and players in usability history. If I missed a major detail, please let me know! This history is how I teach it in my usability testing training based on my own understanding as a usability professional.