UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 862 September 5, 2012

The Six Greatest Breakthroughs in UX History

This might be the most controversial piece I’ve submitted to UX Magazine. I gathered together an entire digital design agency to survey 20 years of Internet history and choose the five most important breakthroughs from a user experience perspective. Tears were shed. Blood was spilled. And in the end we compromised on six.

Why the user experience angle? Because whatever technological innovations are forming in the world’s boardrooms and basements right now, in the end, it’s our users who will choose the winners—with their attention, enthusiasm, and cash.

Here are they are in rough chronological order:

#1: America Online (AOL)

AOL may be fighting for its life today, but it was once synonymous with the Internet. At it peak it had over 30 million subscribers and even swallowed Time Warner. But that’s not why it made our list.

AOL leads our list because it was the original online service for “non-computer people,” offering a friendly graphical user interface in place of command lines and fostering communication among its members long before social became a buzzword.

Through force of will and enough direct-mail CDs to bury Luxembourg, AOL wrested the Internet from the techies, scientists, and academics who created it and made it so accessible your grandparents might even use it—and then they did.

Thank you AOL for bringing the Internet out of the labs and into our living rooms.

#2: Internet Search

No discussion of Internet highs can ignore the centrality and ongoing cultural impact of search. Countless billions have been invested in online shopping sites, products and services, games, media, and social sites. Yet search remains our most popular online activity:

  • 92% of online U.S. adults use search engines to find information on the web—roughly six in 10 use it on a typical day [Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]
  • 93% of all Internet traffic is generated from search engines [Source: Forrester Research]
  • In the U.S., search contributed to 1.2% of GDP in 2009 [Source: McKinsey]

No wonder it’s so popular. You type some words into a box, and the information you seek comes back like magic. And increasingly it does work like magic: Anticipating our needs—even correcting our mistakes—at ever faster speeds.

Thank you Archie, Gopher, WebCrawler, Lycos, Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Ask Jeeves, MSN, AltaVista, Yahoo!, Google, Bing, and others for expanding our consciousness, saving us time and money, making us smarter, and settling every factual dispute we’re ever going to have—on the spot.

#3: Amazon.com

It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, selling goods online was a risky experiment with an uncertain future. This was the world Amazon entered in 1995 as “Earth’s largest bookstore” and one of the first online retailers.

While many of its peers from those days are gone (See CNET’s Top 10 Dot-Com Flops for a trip down memory lane), Amazon persevered to become the world’s largest online retailer with $48 billion in yearly revenue and millions of products and services for sale. But what most impressed us is how it got there.

“Amazon is such a smart learning organization,” Nancy F. Koehn, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. “It’s like a biological organism that through natural selection and adaptation just keeps learning and growing.”

Through its culture of constant experimentation and tweaking, a willingness to quickly drop what’s not working, and its clever use of customer data, Amazon doggedly popularized online shopping and established itself as the beau ideal for successful online retailers across the globe.

Thank you Amazon for finding your way through unknown terrain without a road map. You are the Lewis and Clark of e-commerce.

#4: Napster

We’re not talking about the Napster that Best Buy just sold to Rhapsody, but the original start-up that ignited the music file-sharing frenzy and rocked the web 10 years ago. Napster’s first act (1999 to 2001) was cut short by music industry lawsuits, but the forces it unleashed continue to transform and shape the global media marketplace today.

Napster boasted as many users as AOL at its peak. Like AOL, Napster popularized a technology it didn’t actually invent, and succeeded for many of the same reasons:

  • It was easy to use and understand
  • It aggregated and standardized a previously fragmented landscape
  • It was faster and more reliable than its predecessors
  • It harnessed powerful social dynamics found in the real world

Napster paved the way for some amazing things that we take for granted today, like the ability to easily find, own, and share just about any song, album, movie, book, or story in the world. It is the mother of iTunes, Rhapsody, Netflix, and countless other services and websites that we use and love.

Thank you Napster. Because content really does want to be free—not free of cost necessarily, but free of boundaries.

#5: User-Generated Content

It's hard to believe that user-generated content (or "UGC") has only been a mainstream phenomenon since 2005. Even by Internet standards, its proliferation and growing cultural impact have been astonishing.

Through personal blogs, social networks, online communities and discussion boards, product reviews, wikis, news sites, travel sites, video, and photo-sharing sites, average citizens are exerting an increasingly profound influence over our culture and economy.

  • In the U.S., 43% of Internet users are generating online content [Source: McKinsey]
  • 49% of online users share content online at least one a week [Source: CMB Consumer Pulse]

Entire industries are being transformed. Retail, for one, will never be the same:

  • 81% of people use consumer reviews in their purchase decisions [Source: Nielsen Online via BizReport]
  • Online reviews are second only to word-of-mouth when it comes to influencing consumer-purchasing decisions [Source: Rubicon Consulting]

User generated content was even featured as Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year, in which the person of the year was "you," meaning all of those individuals who are changing the nature of the information age as creators and consumers of user-generated content.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Take Facebook, Craigslist, eBay, Twitter, Pinterest, Myspace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, and Yelp. Without the content produced by users, most of these modern icons wouldn’t exist at all.

Thank you UGC. Customers may not quite rule, as some marketing pundits claim, but because of you they are no longer docile subjects either.

#6: The iPhone

Before the iPhone it was the same story every year. The “year of mobile” was upon us. The phone manufacturers would trumpet their latest incremental improvements and cosmetic enhancements as the next big thing. But something was missing. Then the iPhone debuted in 2007 and we all understood exactly what had been missing.

Five years later, Palm is history. RIM and Nokia are floundering. Windows mobile is kidding itself. And Android is successful because it’s so much like the iPhone. Now that’s disruptive technology.

The mobile revolution is in full swing and accelerating thanks to the iPhone’s ease of use and endless possibility. And with almost six billion mobile handsets in use worldwide, mobile may well be the greatest business opportunity of all time:

  • 90% of the world now lives in a place with access to a mobile network [Source: International Telecommunication Union]
  • Mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web-access devices worldwide by 2013 [Source: Gartner]
  • Direct revenue from the sale of apps, in-app purchases, and subscriptions will hit $14.1bn in 2012 [Source: Canalys]

Thank you Apple for launching the real mobile revolution, and making all that came before you look ridiculous.

So only one question remains: Which great breakthroughs would you choose?

 

Search photo courtesy of Shutterstock

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Scott McDonald is co-founder and managing director of Modus Associates, a digital innovation and design consultancy based in New York City. A frequent industry speaker and writer, he has advised global brands including Morgan Stanley & Co., Sony, Citibank and SIRIUS Satellite Radio, among others.

Add new comment

Comments

50
47

Agree about iPhone really shaking things up. Apple brought the user experience of complex smartphones to the general public and made it simple. Touch interfaces existed before and Apple never said they invented it, but making the touch interface so friendly, easy and smooth is still a problem on Android and Windows Phones.

45
46

How about Microsoft? It revolutionised desktop computing by making it accessible to the masses. Mobile is all the rage now but desktop computing for the masses was essential in the last two decades for the mobile computing revolution to be possible now: It brought an easy to use desktop GUI to computer systems that billions of people could afford; It enabled an explosion in the growth of software and hardware companies; Its flexibility made it both an industry standard and a consumer standard; It radically changed the productivity landscape with Office and made working with documents more convenient. I personally use a Mac but following the compromise rationale in this article, Microsoft deserves a spot. Maybe you need to grow the list to a round 10.

48
43

The iPhone didn't just revolutionize the way we interact with mobile devices; the endless creative ways that the apps for the iPhone and iPad allow us to access, consume and interact with information is truly a restart (reboot) of the Internet age. I dare say that it has breathed new life into the Web development industry as a whole (I've really not heard that particular point addressed). And thank Apple for that.

As a UX Designer from the beginning (practically speaking), I've been a part of the wave and the burst bubble and now after a few years of a lull in Internet/interactive design and watching myself age, I am rejuvenated at the very high demand for my skills and creativity; if nothing else, I've kept myself current with the in vogue technologies that today's mobile environment has fostered.

Now what is needed (I say with some indignation), is some mechanism through which the Comments sections of the most popular posts is arbitrated; I enjoy the intelligent exchange of ideas, but increasingly, that is very difficult, if not practically impossible, to find. Having to weed through all of these contentious "fanboy" comments, whether it be Apple vs. whomever, science vs. religious fundamentalism, political ideologies, is simply wearisome.

40
47

ROFL, written like a true blue American Apple fanboy. You guys really overestimate the presence of Apple outside of the US, especially in asian countries like India and Pakistan. The real reason why mobile phones have had such a huge penetration across the word is because phones have gotten really cheap. You can buy an entry level phone for as little as 10$ in some places, and the associated tariffs have also been really lowered, leading to increased penetration.

Next time, educate yourself a bit before posting such nonsense.

47
40

"Windows mobile is kidding itself. And Android is successful because it’s so much like the iPhone"

Funny stuff. Do you do standup too?

44
45

Surely this wasn't meant to be a UX article. Maybe a more suitable title would have been 'some important technical innovations in Internet history'... But even that seems too broad for the content.
The author appears to be a branding professional- an area totally separate from the field of user experience design. This piece may be of value to others, but it doesn't belong with UX content.

42
50

This is not a list of defining >>UX<< moments...they might forerunners on some things, but I would agree with Brian that a clear UX defining moment would be Xerox and mouses....They might not have been thinking in todays UX terms, but that was a big leap in adding direct value and usability to the user. Another one I would have like to see was Google....though others might have introduced search, Google was the ones that really made search as user friendly as it is today. I remember the 'good' old days when yahoo was big, and that was not user friendly.

This list should have contained examples of companies/people that made a big contribution to designing FOR the user, and not just 'invent' new stuff.

37
43

I think the author has been confused between the UX and Service Provides

40
42

Xerox PARC comes to mind. They were early innovators on GUIs with a mouse and pointer.

45
43

AOL has had zero impact on people outside US - how can that even be included in this list?

49
42

AOL has had zero impact on people outside US - how can that even be included in this list?

47
49

How is 'AOL' a UX concept? Internet search? As in the concept of searching (which has been used in libraries forever) or the search box (which is an HTML element that existed since the introduction of hypertex)? How is that related to UX exactly.
I'm not sure this article belongs in UX magazine, maybe Wired or Cnet, although the title is blatantly misleading. Other than the iPhone, which you could argue it had a somewhat revolutionary (but not new) UX paradigm, Napster and Amazon weren't all that revolutionary UX-wise when they came out. The other three items on the list are BS. If you're going back to the history of mankind and you're talking UX, where is the steering wheel?

44
45

Windows Phone is kidding itself? In my opinion Windows Phone 7+ is another paradigm shift in terms of UX. iPhone was a real innovation in UX which is true with that article. But Windows Phone 7+ UX is a next step toward a new UX Revolution! I bet after 10 years there will be the same article with the list of Windows Phone UX will be considered as another revolution. Because Icon based UI for phone did exists before iPhone. However it was not made for "for the rest of us".

I am not a fan of either of the devices, as a pragmatic UX Designer, iPhone UX is just a piece of a big puzzle which we usually call it an "Eco System".

40
45

Usenet was UGC way before 2005. IMDB was born of UGC from usenet, as were several guitar tab sites.