UX Origins: How childhood experiences shape design choices


Someone recently pointed me to an interesting book, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, by Toby Israel. The book’s thesis is that a designers’ childhood environment profoundly affects their professional and adult design choices. The environments and objects children see and touch in their formative years will, according to Israel, have a deep and lasting effect on how they perceive and how they create the designed environments around them later in life.

I haven’t read the book, but the basic premise as far as I understand it strikes me as very likely. Childhood experiences drove me to become a designer in the first place, why should it not also shape my day-to-day decisions as a designer?

And wouldn’t childhood experiences with interactive things be especially emotionally powerful, whether positive or negative?

I was really curious if this idea rang true for other people in the UX design world, too. So I asked the twitterverse:

chrisfahey: UX people: Which interactive experiences from your childhood shape your decisions as a designer of interactive experiences today? #uxorigins

I got a few dozen delightful responses (most of them using my suggested hashtag #uxorigins). It’s interesting how many of them share common themes: video games, science fiction, dashboards, doors and light switches.

chrisfahey: I remember 2 light switches that controlled the same light. Each switch also reversed the on/off orientation of the other (bad!).

peterme: Simon, Merlin, Mattel Electronic Football, Intellivsion, the cable box where you pressed a button for each channel

strottrot: I remember my mom’s thrill at the development of school desks & scissors designed for people who are left-handed.

soldierant: great idea . I learned narrative, flow balance & symmetry from the modeling diorama books of François Verlinden.

martinpolley: Auto-reverse Walkman — Which side is it playing? Which button do I press for FF and which for RW?

jarango: Videogames, Legos, Disney World, Chris Crawford’s “Art of Computer Game Design”.

gielow: Mine was: Being 1stborn = lots of early individual open-play. Growing up w/Apple II & living near Smithsonian

Braindonut: Acknowledging great game UIs help me to focus on the challenges I actually CARE about and seeing bad UIs obstruct fun

odannyboy: Making robots and spaceships out of cardboard boxes and figuring out the controls. Playing detective.

octothorpe: When I was young, I made siege weaponry (trebuchet, catapults, etc) out of common household items (hangars, mousetraps, etc)

ladylynnet: Pull-doors that look like they should be pushed, can openers, lots of SciFi, and growing up as the Internet grew up

mjbroadbent: @octothorpe Good fun! I’m curious: were your foes real or imaginary? Or perhaps the creative joy was simply in the making.

ConeTrees: reading Enid Blytons & watching cartoons where all things/ interfaces just work and everything is simplified

davin: . Speak & Spell, Merlin, text adventures on Vic-20, 20-sided dice, Lego/Star Wars mash-ups

mikeym: Hammond organs, analog Buchla synthesizers, backlit toggle switches (love!), tube amps, aircraft flight controls.

daveixd: I think it was the Odessy game console. I LOVED that game controller more than anything! The circular disc w/ the 12key punch.

mjbroadbent: Baking, cooking, and serving food were formative for me. Planning everything to yield a fabulous end result was (is) great fun!

nikkirmz: Light switches located on walls behind doors. You must walk in, partially close the door to turn on the light.

jeanphony: Helping my dad design and build a custom family camper from a former delivery van

rayraydel: It’s always been about sketching for me. Both figuring stuff out and communicating it with pencil & paper. The best.

strottrot: Another : My dad cursing through toys with “some assembly required”

noahmittman: As a kid, pirating software without any manuals or help, using only the software’s end design to learn its features.

cchastain: Putting on a carnival in the back yard.

jspahr: Devouring Isaac Azimov’s SciFi stories; building/re-building lego houses/cities; hypercard.

mjbroadbent: Oh yeah! My brother and I created spooky fun houses in our basement. RT @cchastain: Putting on a carnival in the back yard.

jeffpiazza: – Drawing dashboards of real (space shuttle) and futuristic aircraft.

austingovella: Magic: tell a story, misdirect their attention to what they want to see, and delight them.

It’s interesting that about half of these are about experiencing frustration and wanting to fix the experience, and the other half are about being inspired with wonder and delight — precisely the dichotomy that UX designers seem to perpetually wrestle with today

Do you have any childhood experiences that you are convinced still influence you as a designer today?


5 responses to “UX Origins: How childhood experiences shape design choices”

  1. I love this post!

    What shaped me? Building Legos, first with the directions (which were awesome) and then other things without directions.

    Also crafting TurkeyBowl tickets for our front yard football game every Thanksgiving. I would design tickets, locker room passes, and advertisements and post them around the house. It’s really hilarious to think about now.

    Frustration with a lackluster experience and delight from an inspiring experience are both very interesting topics. Thanks for this, Chris!


    Jason R.

  2. -Some of the door handles in the house we lived in Tanzania were fixed upside down (yes, they turned up to open the door). For a while, I was conditioned to second guess how to open the most obvious and well designed doors.
    -The light switches were fixed upside down as well, until I came to the US where the upside down was the right side up.

  3. Mom/Patience Merriman Avatar
    Mom/Patience Merriman

    Hey Chris, great topic.

    When I was a child in the 1950s and 60s, our house was like a motel. Bare and functional, with a lot of cold surfaces. Formica, chrome, linoleum.
    Danish modern or erstaz “colonial” furniture. A generic picture or two on the walls (a Paris street scene, a bowl of fruit) — and always defined as “decor”, never as art. I loved my family but our house came to feel empty and boring to me. It had no soul.

    So when I first visited a house filled with antiques, stained glass, carved oak furniture, libraries filled with old books, oriental rugs, flowers, parquet floors, carved moldings and real art on the walls, I thought I was in some kind of wonderful, beautiful refuge. That aesthetic dominated most of my life.

    Now I realize our house was empty because we had seven children tearing through it and there was no time or room for frills and fragile things.

    Today my aesthetic is sparer. After years of filling my space with great old chairs and lamps and whimsical ephemera, I find I want some empty space. I still love textures, colors, light and old/historic things that evoke connections with ideas and people from the past or other parts of the world. But my taste for Victorian exuberance and excesses has waned.

  4. @Mom: So, during your life the your childhood’s infuence on your design has a different end effect depending on how your aesthetic and taste (and budget and practical need) has evolved. But it’s always there.

  5. Great post! I was frustrated at how VCRs and remote controls were so difficult to use, and simply speechless reading Tintin and Asterix.