(r)Evolution: learning from the history of interaction design and GUIs

I’ve always had an interest on the history of design, more especifically, the history of interaction design. This post is the first of a series on the history of interaction design and how designers can build up on the work of great designers of the past.

Inspiring feelings of awe

I remember the buzz created around Google Wave back in 2008/2009, of all the innovative interactions and GUI elements introduced, their scrollbars were the one GUI element that really caught my attention:

I was really surprised to find out that Wave’s scrollbars were actually first designed for Sun Mycrosystems and AT&T’s Open Look GUI. Yet Google took the credit for innovative interaction, the posts below are an evidence of that:

More recently Apple (in regards to their application Siri) and Simple have shown how powerful natural language interactions can be.

Deborah Mayhew in her 1991 book “Principles and Guidelines in Software User Interface Design” describes in great detail the use of Natural Language on interfaces.

Why is it that 20 years later that’s something that still strikes us as highly innovative, even revolutionary?

A First Look at BankSimple (skip to 2:45 min for an example of a natural language search)

Know your history, know thyself

Turns out the examples above have just recently reached the public and become mainstream thanks to companies like Apple and Google rescuing them from the chest of interaction design history. The fact that these are companies familiar to the general public only helps reinforce the “oh wow, they’ve done it again” feeling. Yet the foundation of these interactions have been developed/implemented a long time ago.

For some of the earliest examples of interaction design take a look at Ivan Shuterland’s 1962 Sketchpad demo or Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos”, shown below.

Mind blowing stuff if you realize that was half a century ago!


Companies recognized by great interaction design have certain common traits: a deep understanding of interaction design history, of the technical and/or market constraints that might have hindered the use of certain patterns and their eyes open for opportunities to rescue and reapply those ideas.

Check back soon for more historical interaction design awesomeness!

Further Reading

If you’re interested on the history and evolution of GUIs I recommend you check out the books below. Most of them are available on Amazon for very reasonable prices.

Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-computer Interaction (1986) — Ben Shneiderman, Catherine Plaisant

The Art of Human/Computer Interface Design (1990) — Brenda Laurel
Graphic Design for Electronic Documents and User Interfaces (1991) — Aaron Marcus

Principles and Guidelines in Software User Interface Design (1991) — Deborah J. Mayhew

The Cross-GUI Handbook for Multiplatform User Interface Design (1994) — Aaron Marcus, et al

Human Computer Interaction (1994) — Jenny Preece, et al

The Guidebook Gallery is also a great resource for screenshots, magazine articles and ads of historical GUIs.

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