UI Design: An All-American Product That's Changing The World

The embodiment of American entrepreneurial spirit, user interface design is the most original and influential design coming out of the United States today.

Over the July 4th holiday weekend, with patriotism and fireworks in the air, some colleagues and I began discussing the concept of American Design -- that is, the design characteristics and elements that are distinctly and recognizably "American." While discussions of national design themes typically focus on areas with relatively long-standing histories such as architecture, furniture, fashion, and even automotive -- all areas where the United States has had varying levels of influence over the years -- it is apparent that the most original and influential contemporary design field coming out of the United States is user interface design, a field that is American in its origins, growth, and spirit.

User-Interface design is American in its origins, growth, and spirit.

The graphical UI was invented and refined here at American universities such as Stanford and MIT and by American companies, including Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft. But as history has repeatedly shown, inventing something is not necessarily synonymous with being known for it. So it may be more meaningful to acknowledge that the graphical UI paradigms and visual elements designed by Americans have become the dominant features of user interfaces on computers and smart phones throughout the world. Even the World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee (a Brit working in Switzerland at the time), was only able to spread massively with the easy-to-use interface of the Mosaic Web browser created at the University of Illinois.

In fact, it's something of a challenge to identify the key characteristics of American interface design because they so strongly define current interface design in general: simple, approachable, consistent, and responsive. To those in the UI field those terms might sound cliché, but consider how applicable such characteristics would be to other design fields: Is fashion design generally driven by consistency? Furniture design by clarity? American design might now be best defined as easy to use (albeit a goal not always achieved).

Apple and others succeeded in UI design because they were more risk-taking.

It is the emphasis on user-centered design that has made American interface design so successful and difficult to replicate or export outside of the United States. As a nation of technology users, we are designing for ourselves better than others outside our culture could. As a result, American interface designers have an advantage in creating more effective technology interactions for Americans than their international counterparts can. By the same token, we might expect American dominance in interface design to endure only so long as Americans are the predominate technology users -- clearly a short-term state with the growing economic power of Asia.

But even with those emerging changes, there will always be something uniquely American about interface design: its entrepreneurial spirit. In the early days of graphical user-interface design, relatively smaller companies like Apple and Microsoft succeeded in interface design because they were more pioneering and risk-taking than their larger, entrenched competitors like IBM and Xerox. Today, virtually any individual can compete in the Web/app/software marketplace with a good idea and an effective interface design. And whether those individuals are American or not, they will share a common beginning, rooted in baseball, apple pie, and UIs.

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  • Norm Cox

    Have to agree with David. Xerox took the greater risk to put forward a fundamentally different, untried and untested way of working with computers. Incorporating an intuitive visual language to interact with the computer, the graphical interface essentially took them out of the back rooms of the geek elite and onto the desks of everyday workers. Apple expertly leveraged this radically new interface idea and made it into a ubiquitous affordance and commercial success. Thanks to the vision, creativity, talent and resources of the "larger, entrenched" companies like Xerox, we all now benefit from their pioneering efforts upon whose shoulders an entire industry was spawned.

  • David Curbow

    I agree with your main argument, but as someone who was at Xerox and then Apple I have to disagree with your "more pioneering and risk-taking" argument. Xerox was the more risk taking, but they (we) got onto a product development track that didn't leverage 3rd-party developers, the real reason for Apple and Microsoft's success. But when the Xerox Star was created there really weren't 3rd-party developers building applications. Also developing for Star was more difficult - requiring developers to learn to program in a Java-like language and OS before those were widely understood models.  

  • Gene Mosher

    Most people think 'DeskTop' when they think of graphical user interfaces but that's only a very small part of the body of graphical user interfaces.  The larger picture involves vertical market solutions and application-specific GUIs.  I originated the touchscreen point of sale paradigm and its concomitant GUI in the late 70's and early 80's working in my restaurants and home, without the benefit of any assistance whatsoever from any university or corporation.  I remain active within that framework today, but what I see is deeply troubling to me; I see companies applying for and receiving patents for GUI concepts that I have shown to tens of thousands of people and have been using in point of sale for three decades.  In 1986 I first demonstrated to thousands of people at Comdex '86 a comprehensive touchscreen application interface for use in hospitality which was based on the idea that a touchscreen button can be used to launch any imaginable task which was based in programming code and that a comprehensive vertical market solution could be based entirely upon a graphical touchscreen interface.  To see individuals and companies applying for and getting patents 25 years later for implementations of this idea is very sad, and it's wrong.  It represents steps taken backwards, enabled by the misdirected sanction of the US Patent Office and its agents.  The allowance of patents on phony ideas that there is something innovative about a telephone tenkey on a graphical touchscreen interface or that touching a person's name on a graphical touchscreen interface can result in initiating a phone call to that person is a scourge on the entire planet. I hold no patents and would never attempt to gain a patent on a user interface concept.  Such patents should never be allowed.  There is work ahead to gain back for ourselves the freedom we enjoyed 25 and 30 years ago in graphical touchscreen user interfaces.  Let's not kid ourselves; companies that patent touchscreen user interface ideas, especially those which have been in use since the early and mid 80's, are sanctimoniously obstructing the natural process of innovation in graphical user interface design.  There's nothing American or glorious about this mess.  It's time to call a spade a spade and stop the abuse of the US Patent System in this especially critical field.

  • Norm Cox

    Thank you for your recognition of this relatively new--yet highly influential-- design discipline. As the UI (visual) designer for the Xerox Star graphical interface in the late '70's and early '80's at their famed Palo Alto Research Center, I've watched the UI craft grow to become a critical skill set in the product development cycle... as well as a powerful differentiating factor in many products through they years. A blend of art, science and magic, UI design is one of the most creative and academically diverse disciplines, influencing nearly every aspect of the overall product "experience". Thanks for recognizing the contributions of UI practitioners everywhere.