The Origins of UX: A Tale of Two Products –

Louis Johnson & Leo Fender

If I asked you to remember the first time you heard about UX, you would probably tell me it was in the last decade, maybe earlier. But the truth is, UX has existed ever since humans started making things. It was just never called “UX” because humans didn’t realize its importance until Donald Norman used the term for the first time in The Design of Everyday Things.

When you think of UX, most of us think about a user’s interaction with a digital product like an app or a phone, but user experience is everywhere around us.

I recently started reading The Human Factor by Kim Vicente where he discusses the importance of designing technology for humans. In the early chapters of the book, Vicente talks about the “divide and conquer” approach that we adopted to solve problems. This has led to the division of human knowledge into categories that are studied separately: engineering, biology, psychology, literature, etc. In The Two Cultures (1959), C.P. Snow highlights that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups”, or two cultures: science and art. We tend to classify people as either “technical” or “creative”: the former focuses on the technical side of things such as the hardware or software while the latter focuses on people’s behaviour and emotions.

Those two cultures hardly meet, it seems like it’s a binary process: you belong to one but not the other. Robert Wright’s quote highlights the importance of that connection between these two cultures:

“Your brain may give birth to any technology, but other brains will decide whether the technology thrives. The number of possible technologies is infinite, and only a few pass this test of affinity with human nature.”

— Robert Wright

To demonstrate that, I will be talking about two products: one that was built using a technology-centered approach, and another that was built using a human-centered approach:

  1. The Phonograph by Thomas Edison (1877)
  2. The Fender Stratocaster by Leo Fender (1954)

One of these was a huge success, while the other struggled during its early years.

Thomas Edison’s technology-centered approach

Thomas Edison is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest inventors, if not the greatest. His inventions include the light bulb and the motion-picture camera which we still use until this day.

The phonograph was one of Edison’s other inventions and it was the first device that could record and replay sounds: the device allowed users to record a sound on a cylinder and replay it after. Edison decided to use cylinders to record sounds instead of discs because of their higher sound quality. He wanted the phonograph to be the first step towards paperless offices in which letters could be recorded on cylinders and mailed to recipients.

Thomas Edison and the Phonograph

His vision failed. Other manufacturers discovered that people wanted to use phonographs to listen to music. Edison shifted his focus from the “paperless office” vision to sell prerecorded music, but he decided to record unknown artists rather than popular ones because they didn’t sound too different from popular ones, and it would cost him significantly less to record them.

Although both reasons are valid, they ignore the most important thing about building any product: user needs. People wanted to listen to the famous artists, not the unknown ones. He also didn’t include the artists’ names on the records he was selling.

Would you ever buy a music album if you didn’t know which artist it was from?

Probably not.

Edison failed at understanding his customers’ needs, but he also failed at making the device practical. Although discs did not offer the same quality of sound as cylinders, they were much more practical in terms of storage. Discs could also be stamped, while cylinders could not.

In 1892, 15 years after the release of the phonograph, Emile Berliner made his own version of it: the famous Gramophone which used discs instead of cylinders. After the success of the Gramophone and the public’s declining interest in discs, Edison moved to disc recording in 1912, 35 years after releasing the first phonograph.

What could have happened if Edison had initially taken his users’ needs into consideration? The phonograph would have been a bigger success. Scope creep and not taking the users into account early in the design process was the main catalyst in the phonograph’s failure.

Leo Fender’s human-centered approach

Leo Fender was a radio repairman before he founded Fender Musical Instruments. Although Fender had a degree in accounting, he was very skilled with electronics. In 1954, he released the Fender Stratocaster, an electric guitar that greatly influenced rock ’n’ roll in the 50s and 60s, and was used by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

The Fender Stratocaster (Source: Sweetwater)

There were other electric guitars on the market when the Stratocaster was released but the secret to its success was its design. Instead of focusing on the technical characteristics of the guitar, Fender decided to focus on the musician’s needs from the beginning of the design process.

Some of the main advantages the Stratocaster had compared to other guitars:

  1. The body of the guitar did not dig into the guitarist’s rib cage
  2. The opening where the cord plugged into the guitar was placed on the front where the guitarist could see it rather than at the bottom
  3. The controls were placed closer to the guitarist’s hand

Freddie Tavares, who helped Leo Fender design the Stratocaster talked about Fender’s philosophy:

“Leo Fender’s general philosophy, general attitude was to make it practical, as practical as possible and as simple as possible.”

Fender had a great relationship with all his customers and he would always welcome them in his lab to talk them through his ideas to get their feedback. He would also quickly build prototypes and test them with musicians during studio recordings and live performances.

It’s interesting to see that rapid prototyping, a strategy that is widely used in the UX industry today, was already being applied by Fender in the 1950s.

What’s more surprising is that Leo Fender didn’t even play the guitar: he relied on his customers’ words to build the Stratocaster.

I find this particularly interesting because it highlights the importance of user interviews in the design process. Designers can learn so much from talking to users, even if they‘re not familiar with the subject matter.

Building a successful product starts by listening to the customer.

Fender’s human-centered approach focused on improving the relationship between musician and instrument, but he also cared about the product lifecycle as a whole. When he was working as a radio repairman, he discovered shortcomings in the design that would make his job more difficult than it should be. When designing the Stratocaster, he wanted it to make repair technicians’ jobs easier too.

The ease of assembly and repair is a win-win for everyone: repair technicians could assemble and repair a larger number of guitars in a shorter amount of time, cutting both labour costs and training time. On the other hand, musicians could expect their guitar to be fixed quickly so they could start reusing it as soon as possible.

What we can learn

  1. Listening to the customer is a priority: their needs should guide the design process.
  2. Cost- and time-saving measures should only be taken if they do not affect user satisfaction with a product: this approach will pay off in the long run even though it is more expensive earlier in the design process.
  3. Technical perfection is just as important as usability: The technology could be flawless, but it will not succeed if it disregards usability and user needs.
  4. Being first to market does not guarantee your success: the phonograph was a brand new device, while the Stratocaster was released when other electric guitars were already available on the market.
  5. The most important one: test and get feedback, test and get feedback, test and get feedback!

The story of these two products that were released more than 60 years ago are still relevant today. They show the early origins of UX methodologies such as user research, user interviews, prototyping and the importance of iteration in the design process. They also highlight the importance of UX: one of the greatest inventors in history failed because he disregarded the user experience, and it cost him.

With the rise of new and complex technologies such as self-driving cars and VR/AR that are more complex than using a phonograph or playing an electric guitar, designing for users is more important than ever.


All the details about the stories above have been obtained from the following books:

The Human Factor, by Kim Vicente

Introduction to Human Factors Engineering, by Christopher Wickens

Further Reading:

Ali Rushdan Tariq from Invision wrote an interesting article about the history of User Experience. You can read it here.

Author: Fawzi Ammache

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