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User experience - Learning from the past

What can history teach us about user experience and why it matters in learning.

Tim Shelton Senior Designer

User experience - Learning from the past

Originating in the tactile, physical world of print, user experience design has become a digital buzzword. The seemingly simple goal of creating meaningful interactions that are easy to understand and use has become a specialty design discipline. But what can history teach us when it comes to designing user experiences today?

A definition

When we say user experience design (UX or UXD) what do we mean? At the core, it’s about designing meaningful interactions that embrace ‘ease of use’ resulting in a positive experience. 

We all interact with technology that has been built around this mantra, we just don’t really think about it. Because well-designed UX is seamless and invisible to the user. 

The only time we tend to notice UX is when something is not working as we expect and frustration takes hold. When you’re on a video call and the same app is sending you notifications even though it should know your busy- that’s annoying, right? In many ways, UX is a remarkable execution of science and design to make our lives much easier.

But how did we get here?

A short history

The middle ages

If we go back to the 15th century, a manuscript was the reading material of the time, painstakingly handwritten by scribes and monks. Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1450 set the stage for a monumental upgrade in UX. Books exploded across Europe, leading to the Age of Enlightenment as the masses learned to read. 

Books conveyed vast quantities of information. The consistent layout and type allowed for visual understanding and the convenience factor of a book is something we still hold onto. 

So what did the middle ages teach us about UX? Consistency of layout and legible typography are two fundamental aspects of digital UX that it's still critical to get right even today.


During the 20th century, we saw Modernism rise to the forefront of the art and design world. Schools like the Bauhaus began to reject the ornate artistic ideas of Art Nouveau and design with the ethos of ‘form follows function’. 

Limitation makes the creative mind inventive - Walter Gropius

As modernism grew, it touched everything from architecture to print. The idea that form and function should be linked led the print world to embrace layout, design, materials and their audience in ways that previously hadn’t been considered. Design began to serve people rather than just visually delight them. Public information, road signs, metros and architecture have all been influenced by this approach.

The modernists show how simplicity can benefit our approach when designing for good user experiences today. When we have a huge range of options to choose from, it can be daunting to try and find the best option. Designing UX with simplicity in mind should reveal a series of choices that lead to a good solution.

Digital culture

Since the 1980s, digital technology has become ever more intertwined with day-to-day life and the need to create positive user experiences has risen dramatically. 

User experience design has become a blend of engineering and good design. Research and data, when combined with aesthetics, provide intuitive interactions. Our devices, digital assistants, and even our toasters go through user testing to provide the best experience for the consumer.

What’s interesting is that a lot of the considerations that go into this design process have existed before. If we reflect on modernism, we can draw parallels from printed media to digital: workflows, the reader/user, the device, the resolution, the colours, where they are, their emotional state. 

Learning from the past

So what can we learn from this short trip through design history? Here are my top take-aways:

  1. The principles of the past still apply. Looking back at how good design has changed our world is an invaluable resource when thinking about modern user experience design.
  2. Embrace the limitations of the media that you have available. This may help you to be more creative with your solution, focusing on purpose, or ‘form following function’.
  3. Keep your audience front and centre- what are they trying to do and how can you simplify that?
  4. Welcome, user testing! UXD is not limited to technology - it’s about experiences. This means anyone can offer insight!

"User experience" encompasses all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products - Don Norman & Jakob Nielsen

My method? Think. Consider. Sketch. Think again. And look around you. It’s all been done before, albeit with different code - Erik Speikermann

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