As most UX professionals know, UX essentially began with Ergonomics and Human Factors, and from there it evolved by incorporating additional disciplines, particularly those related to the digital realm. However, many non-digital UX disciplines, including Ergonomics, Industrial Design, Cultural UX, Urban UX, Service Design, and others, have seemingly disappeared from the mainstream branches of UX, despite continuing to exist as separate branches in their own right. This can be observed even on this website, which used to feature a significant number of questions about Physical UX, but now rarely receives one every few months.

I understand that we live in a digital world, which dominates markets and the economy, so it makes sense for this shift to occur. However, physical, cultural, and urban products and services are still being developed, perhaps even more so than before. Yet, designers working on such products and experiences are distanced from the realm of UX. In fact, one of the individuals on my team is a master's degree holder in Industrial Design and a university professor. She mentioned accepting her position at our firm mainly to learn UX because, in the university setting, UX was only briefly mentioned as something done by others, not a concern for industrial designers. She also noted that ergonomics is not even considered part of UX by her colleagues, but rather viewed as an entirely separate discipline, despite the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) explicitly mentioning User Experience on its homepage.

I understand this can be subjective and opinionated, so my question is: Was there a specific event, such as the rise of an association, new paradigms, new theories, or other factors, that caused UX to increasingly become focused solely on the digital realm? (For example, the dreaded UI/UX acronym seems like a clear sign to me, but it doesn't explain everything)

Or do professionals from other disciplines not identify themselves as part of the UX field for some particular reason, like UX is so broad they prefer to be specialized or something like that?

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    Your last point for me I think is exactly it. If I design a soda can, I wouldn't be called a UX designer. The processes are different too. Or at least I'm assuming someone designing a lotion bottle wouldn't be creating a wireframe in balsamiq first, but I'm sure there's some 3d software out there. Though, to be honest, I think maybe there are better sites that have much quicker responses for physical UX. One last point, they weren't called UX originally from what I remember, UX was coined for tech, so other UX related fields that were already better defined stuck to what names they received. Jun 13, 2023 at 20:38

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From my perspective of working simultaneously in UX and human factors engineering for nearly 30 years, my impression is that the non-digital disciplines were never truly part of UX. The idea of UX incorporating every touchpoint (digital and physical) between people and the built world was more an aspiration than a practice.

UX didn’t really begin with ergonomics and human factor programs in engineering schools. Rather, it began in the 1970s with usability engineering and human-computer interaction (HCI, or, with ACM, CHI) in computer science schools. HCI, human factors, and industrial design were each always more-or-less separate streams. Even ergonomics (in the sense of the physics of the interface, e.g., anthropometrics and biomechanics) tends to be distinct from human factors. There has always been some overlap between digital and non-digital. I’m personally an example of that. Of my 30-odd colleagues in what we call “The Human Factors Division,” there are six of us in the Usability group. You do find some articles on digital UIs in HFES’s flagship journal Human Factors (usually narrow-core HCI that fits well with classic human factors, not things like emotional design). However, overlaps have always been less than 50%.

In my career, the term “user experience” became common among usability engineers around year 2000 or so to represent the idea that the principles and methods developed in HCI, like user-centered design, could be applied more broadly, but that doesn’t mean it ever happened. The truth is anyone calling themselves a UX practitioner back then, as now, was almost certainly doing only digital UI design. I’m not sure what you’re seeing on the pages of UX Stack Exchange, but when I last surveyed it 9 years ago, it was over 90% digital UI, and a lot of that concerning physical UIs seemed to be hypotheticals or design exercises, not professional design work.

I believe the main reason UX never subsumed the physical interfaces is because the disciplines for the physical world (ergonomics, human factors, industrial design, urban planning, fashion design, and more) were already well established before the idea of UX took root in HCI. Human factors, for example, a relative newcomer, dates from at least the 1940s. Each discipline each requires specialized knowledge you won’t find in UX then or now. Frankly, it was the height of hubris to think we could just take them over. It would be like me thinking that, as a human factors engineer, I’m also an architect. Yes, I can get things like the doors the right size and the lighting sufficient, but that‘s a tiny minority of what I’d need to know.

So to answer your specific questions:

  • There was no specific event that lead to UX to practically focus on digital UIs. It has always been focused on digital UIs.

  • Non-digital professionals do not identify as part of UX because any UX training they have (maybe a class or two in college) represents a small portion of their knowledge relevant to their subject matter.

  • Thank you, Michael. Your input is indeed appreciated as you certainly are one of the experts I always referenced as a specialist in Physical Design, and somehow I hoped you would jump on this question. I like your usage of the word "hubris" because I think it's quite accurate. Nevertheless, I hold a Masters in HCI, yet I'm increasingly interested in more holistic, multidimensional experiences. Hence, the reason for my question (and now I see the bias).
    – Devin
    Jun 14, 2023 at 18:43
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    @Devin: While I think it hubris to believe that, as an UXer, I know all I need to know to design anything, I do think UX has something to offer other disciplines of design. But then, I suspect any discipline of design could teach something to any other discipline simply by breathing in new perspectives and methods. Could fashion design inspire new architecture or vice versa? Why not? (cont...) Jun 16, 2023 at 3:09
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    @Devin (cont): I think the key to you personally expanding beyond digital interface design is to enter a physical design discipline as a student or apprentice. Study the field and practice, maybe even formally through a second masters. By becoming well-versed in both fields, you’ll see how to bring them together. You will naturally see common principles between the physical and digital and opportunities to use UX in the physical, and vice versa. Jun 16, 2023 at 3:10

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