What does the History & evolution of interaction design tell us about designing for digital? | Part 2

Interactive digital products respond to human input and change their own content/behavior based on that input. The most fundamental principles of interaction design can be traced back to 4000 BC to the prehistoric Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui. Feng Shui is about spatially arranging objects in relation to the energy flow. Practically, being about arrangement of your surroundings in the most harmonious, optimal, and user-friendly way and covering everything from layout and colors to materials and framework. The end goal remains the same as about creating a user-friendly intuitive experience. We explore the history of interaction design across the decades.

Hari Nallan & Mohita Jaiswal

Interested in Form, rooted in Behavior 

However, interaction design gained importance with the dawn of personal computing.

It expanded from early graphical user interfaces to include myriad interaction techniques and devices, multi-modal interactions, tool support for model-based user interface specification, and a host of emerging ubiquitous, handheld and context-aware interactions. The history is a testimony of how its evolution made it easier for humans to interact and develop a relationship with machines.

YearEventThe course of Evolution of Interactions


Text based interaction with the first personal computers

Users typed commands and the computer displayed the result, acting as little more than an advanced calculator. 

This early personal computing era can be likened to the time before the Industrial Revolution, with digital craftsmen making machines primarily for themselves or their friends. The act of design became separated from the act of making for the first time.


Douglas Engelbart’s NLS demonstration- graphical user interface, hypertext, and the computer mouse.

GUI was a marked event in the history of personal computing, but making the software visual did not automatically make computers usable by masses.

Mid 1980’s

Bill Moggridge, along with Bill Verplank, coin the term “interaction design

“Interaction design” was now seen as a way of distinguishing design that focuses on digital and interactive experiences from traditional industrial design.


Research projects at Xerox PARC

The Xerox Star was the first commercially available computer with a GUI that utilized the messy desktop metaphor – Files and folders were displayed as icons that could be, and were scattered around the display surface in a What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) approach.


Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) emerged as a recognized subdiscipline of computer science.

Because designing how people use digital systems was so new, and because the task required integrating so many fields of knowledge, it became a vibrant research area within multiple fields of study (psychology, cognitive science, architecture, library science, etc.).


Apple released the Lisa/Mac

Apple briefly succumbed to pressure and licensed its Mac OS to officially run on Macintosh “clones.”


Microsoft debuted Windows 1.0 i

As businesses embraced computers in every office, they overwhelmingly chose Windows as a more cost-effective and flexible option than the Mac. Platform approach of the Windows operating system had separated the physical and digital parts of the personal computer. Companies tended to focus on hardware or software exclusively, and designers could make few assumptions about how they were combined by end users.


The mouse and the standard 102-key keyboard became a generic duo of input devices, dependable but limited.

Although the GUI used a spatial metaphor, the variety of monitor sizes and resolutions made it difficult to know how the on-screen graphics would be physically represented. Software emerged as a distinct and autonomous market, which contributed to the largely separate evolution of interaction and industrial design.


Launch of the Mosaic web browser

Brought to life Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the World Wide Web. The Internet had been around for years, but the graphical nature of the Web made it much more approachable.

Open to new forms of interaction, new interface metaphors, and new possibilities for interactive visual expression. Most importantly, it was accessible to anyone who wanted to create their own corner of the Web, using nothing more than the simple HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Web pushed interactive environments into an entirely virtual realm. A website could be accessed from any computer, regardless of size, type, or brand.


Wired described web users as Netizens, socializing in virtual reality was an aspiration, and there was growing excitement that ecommerce could replace brick-and-mortar stores.

The Web had brought about the consumer phase of computing, expanding the scope and influence of interaction design. The Web hastened the information revolution and accelerated the idea that “information wants to be free.” Free to share, free to copy, and free of physicality.


Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)

The dominant wireless networks (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) didn’t make the operating systems that powered their phones, but they controlled how they were configured and dictated what software was preinstalled. Additional features such as color screens and high-quality ringtones, their software interactions remained primitive. Primitive browsers could access limited information services like stock prices, sports scores, and news headlines.


Don Norman, a cognitive scientist, invented the term UX design

He felt human interface and usability as terms are too narrow. UX covers all aspects of a person’s experience with a system including industrial design, graphics, interface, physical and manual interaction (design of everyday things-book)


Apple launched the iPhone and disrupted the mobile phone market.

Gaining freedom from the shackles of the carrier’s business decisions gave the iPhone an unprecedented possibility for a unified experience.


Update to iOS allowed third-party applications to be installed.

Focus shifted not only to a mobile context but to the reintroduction of physicality as an important constraint and design opportunity.

Wave of smartphones that have since emerged uses direct touch manipulation to select, swipe, and pinch as you navigate between and within apps.

After 2010

Skeuomorphic user interface helped smartphones become the most rapidly adopted new computing platform  

Designers started craft pixel-perfect interface layouts. The ability to map screen graphics to physical dimensions was concurrent with the rise of a new graphical interface style that directly mimicked the physical world. This visual style, often called skeuomorphism, presents software interfaces as imitations of physical objects, using simulated textures and shadows to invoke rich materials such as leather and metal.


The physical form of a smartphone was very neutral- designed to disappear as much as possible

A full-screen app providing the device’s momentary purpose and identity. Smartphones became convergence devices, embedding disparate functions that render a variety of single-purpose devices redundant —a phenomenon that investor Marc Andreessen refers to as “software eating the world.” The smartphone required designers to consider the physicality of users in terms of their fingertips.


Dawn of smart devices, sometimes referred to collectively as the Internet of Things.

These devices use embedded sensors and network connectivity to enhance and profoundly change our interactions with the physical world. Smart devices can augment our natural interactions that are already happening in the world, recording them as data or interpreting them as input and taking action.

These new connected devices require a broader consideration of a person’s full body and presence in space.

The history of interaction design has seen new patterns emerging and old ones re-emerging, over the course of time. For example, command line interfaces which were used at the dawn of computing are still preferred by experts because visuals are distracting for them. What has remained constant are the principles of interaction design aimed at being goal-driven, usable, learnable,   consistent and feedback evoking.

“If we want users to like our software we should design it to behave like a likeable person: respectful, generous and helpful.” – Alan Cooper

Hari Nallan

Hari Nallan

Founder and CEO of Think Design, a Design leader, Speaker and Educator. With a master's from NID and in the capacity of a founder, Hari has influenced, led and delivered several experience driven transformations across industries. As the CEO of Think Design, Hari is the architect of Think Design's approach and design centered practices and the company's strategic initiatives.

Mohita Jaiswal

Mohita Jaiswal

Research, Strategy and Content consultant. With a master's from IIT Delhi, Mohita has diverse experience across domains of technical research, big data, leadership development and arts in education. Having a keen interest in the science of human behavior, she looks at enabling holistic learning experiences, working at the intersection of technology, design, and human psychology.


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