Essays & Articles


Where did the term User Experience (UX) come from?

Where did the term User Experience come from?

When I joined Apple in 1993, my first title was “Apple Fellow,” which was a very high position that gave me absolute freedom to do anything I wished. (Other organizations have such similar positions, for example IBM’s IBM Fellows).

After spending time wandering the halls of the company, learning about all the activities, meeting with all the senior executives, directors, managers, and most importantly of all, many of the hardworking people who actually built Apple’s products, I realized that Apple’s great reputation for ease of use and understanding was slowly eroding. So I proposed to my boos, the Vice President of the Advanced Product Group (ATG) that I try to do something about this. I asked two people from ATG to join me — Tom Erickson and Harry Saddler. After considerable discussion, we named ourselves The User Experience Architect’s Office, and I took the title of Apple’s User Experience Architect.

I do not know how we arrived at the name, so I prefer to give credit to the group, with equal credit to the three of us. We actually did make a difference. Harry helped restructure the design process, I got the already existing user interface design group several large increases in head count, and eventually the three of us changed apple’s product process so that User Experience was put on an equal status with Engineering and Marketing.

No product could be approved without approval of all three requirements documents: User experience, marketing, and engineering. And the final specification, in similar fashions, had three different documents. All had to be approved, with equal weight to all.

That was easier than it might sound, because all three groups worked collaboratively. I was delighted that when I visited the working groups, I could not tell who was a programmer, a marketing person, or a user experience person because they all worked together in harmony (at least when I was around), and each did whatever task was most suited for their skills.

The user experience people took me on trips to people’s homes. The marketing people took me around the world to talk to customers in Europe, across the United States and in Japan.

Somewhat later, the VP of ATG was promoted, and so I moved into that position. And because all Apple Fellow’s reported to the VP of ATG, I reported to myself, along with Gary Starkweather, Alan Kay, Guy Kawasaki, and even Steve Wozniak.

Where did User Experience become abbreviated as UX?

I don’t know. My memory is that we never used UX at Apple during the time I was there.

CHAT GPT Corrects me

On a whim, I decided to ask Bing’s ChatGPT where the term User Experience originated? To my great surprise, it gave a different, earlier source:

Brenda Laurel’s chapter essay “Interface as Mimesis” (in User Centered Systems Design, eds. Norman & Draper, 1986, ch. 4, p.69). Here is the precise quotation:

But in seeking design principles for good interfaces, we must, it seems to me, concern ourselves with the best case, and ask, not what the users are willing to endure, but what the ideal user experience might be, and what sort of interface might provide it.

Laurel, B. (1986). Interface as mimesis. In D. Norman & S. Draper (Eds.), User centered system design: New perspectives on human-computer interaction (pp. 67-85). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p. 69.

Not only did Brenda use the phrase in 1986 while I was still a professor at the University of California, San Diego, but she used it in a book edited by me and Steve Draper, which also followed many joint meeting and conferences with all the contributors. In other words, I clearly was aware of Brenda’s insightful work and writing. The term “User Centered System Design” is often cited as one of the first uses of the term User Centered. (The system part has unfortunately been forgotten.) The title of the book was invented so that its acronym (UCSD) matched the acronym formed by the name of the university (UCSD).

Did the phrase “User Experience” come from Brenda, and then resonate in my mind until being resurrected at Apple? That sounds very plausible to me. I am delighted to give Brenda credit. (Others have pointed out that although Brenda used the phrase, to describe an important attribute, our group at Apple was the first to use it as a title of an activity. True, but still. I interacted with Brenda a lot in those early days, and her thinking was very important to my development as a designer. I am delighted to give her the credit she deserves.)

ChatGPT thoughtfully pointed to two resources for the origin:

Peter Merholz’s piece:

Slack Exchange: terminology – When did UX start being called UX? – User Experience Stack Exchange