Experience Driven Design

By Paul Gifford

User experience, or UX, is a popular term used by today’s technology and design industries. It is a constantly evolving field that refers to how humans interact with a product or service, either online or in the physical world.

UX designers don’t just focus on creating products that are usable. They instead take a holistic approach to design where every aspect of the experience is considered—from initial intentions through final reflections. This process also takes into account the end user’s emotions, beliefs, preferences, behaviors, and physical and psychological responses during and after a product’s use. This empathetic approach allows designers to build products with the customer in mind. 

While the term UX may be fairly new, it’s part of a larger movement that can be traced throughout various time periods. When we look at the evolution of technology from a historical perspective, we can better understand the approaches of experience-driven design and its influence.

To that end, I will examine several innovative developments from the 13th century to today that used a UX design approach to advance societies: timekeeping, automobiles, Disneyland, and the Internet. Each of these developments introduced new forms of technology and ultimately led to new ways of experiencing the world. Today’s designers understand this, and they accordingly focus on enhancing high impact and universal experiences.


Historical Environments of Experience Driven Design

Three black and white photos. Top left: classic clock with hands at 10 o'clock, Bottom Left: old man tooling with a timepiece, Right: Big Ben Clock Tower (London)


Timekeeping and clocks transformed economic growth and reframed how life was organized and perceived. However, the concept of a precise measurement of time is a surprisingly recent one. Before the Middle Ages, people relied on sundials or water clocks, which didn’t play a role in their basic life or business activities. In fact, standards around punctuality didn’t even exist until the mid-13th century when the Roman Catholic Church invented clock towers to control the observance of prayer times. Artisans used experience-driven thinking during the design process of the high clock tower. A bell now rang to mark each hour, which was ideal for users as it only required their ability to count, see or hear the clock to be alerted to their daily duties. 

Eventually, personal timepieces allowed us to all measure time simultaneously, and people began to organize their daily lives differently. For example, time synchronization made it easier for food market managers to control their workers, organize deliveries, and sell their goods. Ultimately, telegraphs, steamships and railways led the way forward because they were able to craft experiences around the idea of uniformity and time. Timekeeping was the initial invention that new technologies pushed into producing fundamental changes to the human experience. 



With the development of timekeeping came new and efficient production systems. In 1907, Henry Ford announced that he would create a “motor car for the great multitude.” At the time, automobiles were expensive, custom-made machines that were unattainable to the masses. Ford realized he needed a more efficient way to produce cars, and he thus began to create new interactions between laborers and their tools through new manufacturing systems. Human labor was divided in these mass production systems, as machines now pieced the interchangeable parts together. The conveyor belt optimized work: as one task was finished, another began with minimum time spent in setup. Time and motion studies were used to determine the exact speed and action workers should use to accomplish their tasks. 

Soon after, businesses were rebuilt around the possibilities of manufacturing. This user-centric approach to manufacturing was adopted by countless other industries until the entire habits of a nation changed. By thinking broadly about manufacturing processes, Ford brought organizational innovation to the forefront of design. This new and improved manufacturing system gradually led to an environment that would support the introduction of the Internet 75 years later.


Disney’s initial UX framework established the guiding principles that his team of Imagineers used to understand their customers’ experiences going forward.



Walt Disney is often regarded as the world’s first UX designer because of the ways he advanced user-centric thinking. There is perhaps no better physical embodiment of his design philosophy than Disneyland. From its opening day, Disneyland immersed park goers in a blend of sensory experiences in which every minute detail had been strategically designed for them.

Disney ensured the sound effects on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, for example, were just loud enough to intimidate park visitors while also allowing them to enjoy a thrilling experience. His team focused on designing memorable moments so the park’s customers would revisit again and again just to relive them. At one point, Walt Disney described his theme park as an “experimental prototype” that was in a state of constant improvement and innovation. Disney’s initial UX framework established the guiding principles that his team of Imagineers used to understand their customers’ experiences going forward.  


Apple realized early on that controlling a new technology’s full experience can create far superior end-user connections. 

Three black and white images - Top Left: grainy photo of two original Apple computers with keyboards and mice, Bottom left: A young Steve Jobs speaks into a microphone with an original Apple computer on the right, Left photo: professional product photography of the Apple computer details (screen, keyboard, cables)


Arguably, the most impactful innovation of our recent history is the Internet. During the 1970s, there were independent advances in the availability of fast computing and networking. In the early 2000s, a new wave of “Digital Age” startups began designing for broader experiences as networks improved. As a result, people can now feel the proof of experience focused design every day. The success of Apple under Steve Jobs’ guidance is an excellent example of experience driven thinking. Apple brought the Internet to our fingertips. The company also understood the importance of designing minor details to represent their overall brand. Apple realized early on that controlling a new technology’s full experience can create far superior end-user connections. 


Companies now apply a systems-oriented approach to problems, and this approach changes industries.


There is currently a rise in large tech companies taking a greater point of view with regards to UX design. These new corporate perspectives are similar to how institutions and individuals began incorporating a UX design approach during the rise of timekeeping, the automotive industry, and Disneyland. 

Now, companies regularly apply a systems-oriented approach to problems, and this approach changes industries. For example, over the last 20 years, Amazon, Uber and Airbnb have disrupted the retail, taxi, and hotel industries respectively. The super-powered growth of businesses in recent centuries is the result of major technological introductions paired with human-centered thinking.


Looking Ahead

The historical and modern-day design events discussed here each had profound societal impacts that can also reveal a bit about where we’re heading. We could potentially see telemedicine revolutionize rural healthcare, for example, or virtual schooling drive down the costs of higher education. These are major cross-functional challenges that will rely on user-centric thinking to truly succeed.

Our society has recently seen the introduction of new and advanced material sciences, artificial intelligence, and generative technologies. These tools will change how designers work, and a massive shift will also appear in the designer’s role as a systems-oriented thinker. Thinking about products as solitary objects will not be enough for success. Products are becoming increasingly more complex and can drive participation within larger experience ecosystems while also acting as portals to broader capabilities. 


Every design will be an experiential system rather than a single artifact.


As we move forward, designers will be challenged to design for the global economy and will need to leverage UX methodologies to test their assumptions for greater sample populations. Every design will be an experiential system rather than a single artifact. By harnessing a UX approach now, we will be able to predict outcomes better and connect with those future humans we are designing for today.


About the Author

Paul Gifford is a UX Designer at Whipsaw. Paul is focused on helping companies create new experiences and building solutions that combine a considered approach with emerging technologies. He is excited by design’s ability to improve real human needs and believes great insights can be achieved by active research and observation.