Three times UX research led to better experiences for everyone (not just on the web!)

These days, user experience (UX) is almost always associated with developing web applications and websites. However, UX research and design principles have been around and making changes long before the internet we know today!

Steps near doors in a desert landscape

User experience: Feng Shui for the Internet?

Although cognitive psychologist and designer Don Norman coined the term “user experience” as we now understand it in 1995, the ideas behind it had been in use for a long time. Take, for example, the ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui, which focuses on optimizing the spatial arrangement of objects like furniture in a room. Feng Shui, which dates back to at least 4,000 BC, is all about harmonizing your surroundings to channel the flow of the objects in a room to suit the room’s purpose best.

Feng Shui practitioners apply this to bedrooms, offices, and even entire buildings, while UX designers use similar means to harmonize virtual objects in our increasingly digital world. Though the former operates in the physical world while the latter in the virtual, both Feng Shui and UX design share a common goal: craft an intuitive and user-friendly experience. For this reason, there’s a strong case for Feng Shui as an early precursor to the UX design practices we embrace today.

With its Feng Shui-adjacent principles in mind, we hope you enjoy these three examples of UX research that led to better experiences for everyone!

1. Ed Roberts, UC Berkeley, and curb cuts

So the story of our first example goes like this: Amid all the radical cultural revolution of the 1960s, an activist and UC Berkeley grad student named Ed Roberts led a group of students to improve wheelchair access to sidewalks. Roberts had polio as a young child, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. With only the use of two fingers on his left hand, he relied on an attendant to push his wheelchair to classes and on his classmates to make carbon copies of their notes to help him study. 

Though Roberts was the lone student with a disability for a while, more people with disabilities arrived at UC Berkeley over his tenure there. Over time, they began a movement to improve the lives of others with disabilities. Though the stories of him and his friends tearing up the corners of sidewalks and installing their own ramps are most likely exaggerated, the group did work with the city of Berkeley. In 1971, Berkeley made its city policy to make streets and sidewalks accessible for those with disabilities in major commercial areas, marking the world’s first curb-cut program (Curb cuts are the graded ramps that allow sidewalks to meet the street seamlessly without having to pass over the curb). 

This relatively simple change, prompted by the shared experience among those who used wheelchairs and heavily researched by the city of Berkeley, has led to better sidewalk access for everyone, especially those with small children in strollers, people with neuromotor disabilities like Ed Roberts, and the visually impaired.

2. Toyota optimized their workplace in the 1940s

Following mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor’s early, albeit dehumanizing, strides toward workplace efficiency, Toyota notably implemented a more human-centric production system. In contrast to Taylorism, Toyota’s approach emphasized respect for people and dedicated significant attention to their workers’ needs to build a better work environment. Valuable human input was actively encouraged; for instance, Toyota factory workers were encouraged to pull a cord and halt the assembly line to offer feedback or suggestions for process improvement. We might even consider this an early example of live usability testing.

Toyota’s assembly line work marked a pivotal moment in UX history, highlighting the profound impact of human-machine interaction. Because regardless of technological advancements, the actual value of any tool or process lies in its usability. And hey!- that’s what UX research and design is all about.

3. Pretty much everything about Disney World

Engineers, philosophers, and activists can’t take all the credit for the evolution of UX research and design. Though perhaps an unlikely candidate, we would be remiss not to consider Walt Disney as an early UX design pioneer.

Disney, driven by his notorious obsession with crafting magical and immersive user experiences, is widely celebrated for his role in designing Disney World. In his 2013 UX Magazine article, Joseph Dickerson details Disney's famous guiding wisdom for his "Imagineers”:

  • Know your audience
  • Wholly step into your guests’ shoes
  • Communicate through color, shape, form, and texture.

…Sound familiar to UX design? 😆

Anyway, Disney's impact continues to extend beyond mere entertainment. Today, Disney’s next generation of Imagineers applies the latest technology to enhance people's lives and imaginations with enchanting (perhaps bordering on addictive) experiences at Disney World and affiliated parks. Walt Disney’s vision and its continued evolution at Disney World are undoubtedly admired and emulated by many of today's UX designers.

UX R&D and the future

As they navigate artificial intelligence, ever-advancing voice tech, virtual reality, and interface-free design concepts, today's UX designers face challenges that would truly baffle and amaze the pioneers of UX design. 

Increasingly, UX designers must also consider inclusivity and accessibility. Forward-thinking designers often master the art of designing for diversity while simultaneously honing expertise in specialties like voice design and UX writing. As we take a glimpse into the future of UX design, one thing is for sure: the future is no doubt as thrilling as the history.

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