The Evolution of User Experience Design

Posted By Ellen Cowan In Digital Strategy 02/8/2013
user experience design

The current status of User Experience design, or UX design, can best be explained as existing in the midst of a fourth wave of User-Centered design, according to Dr. William Gribbons. Dr. Gribbons is one of the founding fathers of user-centered design theory and currently serves as director of the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design and Founder and Senior Consultant of the Design and Usability Center at Bentley University.

Dr. Gribbons’ recent article in UX Magazine summarizes the evolution of User Experience design. “Technology has evolved dramatically over the years, but focusing on the user needs and business indicators has successfully guided us through frequent and often dramatic industry transitions that came in four distinct waves. Each wave built upon the next, with students learning aspects of past waves while continuing to look ahead in this ever-evolving field.”

Through each of the waves, Gribbons explains, the field was able to keep its priorities by focusing on three core guiding principles:

  1. User-centered design begins and ends with a deep and comprehensive study of human behavior related to product and experience design.
  2. User-centered design is about delivering value to businesses for the opportunity to serve the user (and, as DOOR3 would explain, this replaces thinking about how the business sees itself and instead focusing on how the user experiences the products and services of the business).
  3. User-experienced design focuses on offering valuable contributions in the context of where users actually are - any place where a product or service is designed for use by people.

So what are the four waves that brought us with these principles to the current state of User Experience design?

1. External Support

According to Dr. Gribbons, in the first wave, “we gained valuable insights into the intersection of user behaviors and needs and product design and use. Although we addressed user needs as external to the product, in doing so, we laid the groundwork for the eventual migration of user support into product design.”

2. Usable and Useful

The second wave found efforts reaching much further into product design as users demanded that “technology not only be powerful and stable, but also useful and usable. Dr. Gribbons writes, “Our focus in the second wave was guided by a definition of usability that included ease of learning, ease of use, transfer of learning, and segmentation of users (what we would later call personas). We saw the technology not as an end, but rather an enabler, supporting the achievement of real user goals and serving real human needs.

3. User Experience

The third wave created what is now called User Experience. Dr. Gribbons writes, “This wave was characterized by yet another shift in user expectations brought on by the emergence of new technologies, like the World Wide Web and mobile technology, in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Our strategies and methods were modified in response to the increased demands of the marketplace, changing our understanding of users. User experience was characterized by a progressively deeper understanding of a more heterogeneous user population, including an interest in accessibility and cross-cultural requirements.”

4. The Intersection of UX and Innovation

The fourth wave is characterised by the constant innovation accompanying well-designed products. Dr. Gribbons explains, “One can see this fourth wave in action in the relentless innovations being made at Facebook, Apple, and Samsung—each new product or enhancement is quickly followed by another. We no longer exclusively confine our activities within the boundaries of today’s technologies and markets, and no longer direct all of our resources toward existing product development.”

It is Dr. Gribbons' belief that User Experience practitioners have an obligation to continue relying on the three core focuses: users, business indicators and marketplace shifts. Additionally, we should embrace the focus on innovation to avoid resting on past successes.

Since its start in the late 1980s, User-Centered design has been a major part of the biggest technological and social shifts. Having briefly looked at its evolution thus far, where do you think UX design is heading?

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