In “Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design” author Barry M. Katz chronicles hardware and software development from the under documented perspective of designers who “waged an ongoing guerilla campaign to to gain a hearing from the engineering overlords”.
Within the book there are two examples of early computer design and the hardware and interaction design they changed .
It’s tempting to think of hardware and software conventions as inevitable rather than the product of a series of design decisions dictated by needs and constraints.
I found the following two examples from the book worth writing about. The first is a device designed with modest ambitions but which had wider consequences for product design in general while the second was a profound idea with far reaching implications.
Form before function
The HP-35 scientific calculator was pivotal in terms of design – a device that could perform complex “transcendental functions using a pseudo multiplication algorithm displayed in Reverse Polish Notation” but one discrete enough for an engineer or pilot to whip out from their pocket and quickly derive a value. Owing to the constraints of size in this use case, here was a device in which the form led the design of the internal components and outer casing rather than the function alone. So while it might “be too much to claim that with the HP-35 the designer was placed in the driver’s seat…neither was he a third-class passenger relegated to the back of the bus”.
The HP-35 “might have well been the iPhone of the day for the geek community” claims John Maeda in the book’s introduction but it may also have been more. Up to this point “the real product was the electronics and function, and the mechanical and aesthetic parts were, at best, considered secondary”. With the HP-35 whatever it could achieve technically was primarily constrained by the requirement that it had to be small and light enough to fit into a user’s pocket and liberate them from the tyranny of the slide rule. This bucked HP’s then “inside-out” methodology and “for the first time, the designer was not brought in after the fact to package an assemblage of electronic components”. This was a first for an electronic product aimed at professionals rather than consumers.
The success of the $395 calculator as it migrated from specialist (engineers and financial analysts) to general everyday use showed that there was an appetite for well designed portable electronic devices that could appeal to both.
Designing the office of tomorrow
In the mid 1960s, as a ceaseless tide of workers migrated from industry to office, the field of ergonomics was established to study the work environment. It’s no coincidence then that around the time that Robert Propst was designing the Action Office System for the Herman Miller Corporation (a system which evolved into the much detested cubicle) some in Silicon Valley were looking to move the computer from the backroom to the desk.
In 1972 PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center) , a Xerox subsidiary, sent out briefs looking for possible designs for an “intellectual augmentation system” that would allow office workers interact with a computer using a vertical CRT screen (to mimic a piece of paper orientated in portrait), a regular keyboard, a binary keypad and a “writing-pointing device”.
DesignLabs was one of the companies selected to build a system and felt confident they could deliver having demoed a prototype of something very similar four years earlier when Douglas Englebart gave “the world its first glimpse of the computer not as a disembodied electronic brain but as a physical, interactive, design experience”. You’ll see from the demo that the vision here is for the computer to be a personal aide:
In fact Propst and Englebart formed a close personal bond as their work complemented each other’s aim to enrich the”information deluge” of the white collar worker’s workspace.
DesignLabs won the competition to design the system from and from that system the Xerox Alto was subsequently developed and launched in 1973. The Alto was not just revolutionary in terms of hardware, as we can see from above, it profoundly changed the modes of interaction with computers. Up to this point a computer was by and large a forbidding cabinet attended by engineers in white coats.
To transform it into something an office worker could not just use (without programming) but actually want to use Alan Kay developed an interface with a desktop metaphor which borrowed concepts and objects recognisable from the office environment. So we had files and pages. The subsequent Xerox Star expanded the metaphor using recognisable icons and folders.
It was a demo of the Alto in 1979 that impressed two guys called Steve enough for them to see that this was the future of personal computing much more than Xerox did at the time.