Great UX is a product of discovery. It begins with knowing what’s important and ends with finding a way to show the stuff that maybe isn’t even that important. It requires thinking about not “the user”, but instead all of the possible users. It takes tradeoffs and it takes compromises.

Above all, however, great UX transient. As your product grows and the technology landscape evolves, it must remain under scrutiny. To do it well, UX should not be thought about periodically, but constantly.

Determing which bits of information are salient to your users may not always be simple, but they must be learned. What matters can evolve with time.

Devices change in size, shape and interaction model. New hardware not only allows for new ideas, but also the fruition of old ideas.

Finally, as you add features, you must provide discoverability of the new while maintaining comprehension of the old.

With those ideas in mind, I’m beginning a series called Great Moments in UX. Understanding what helped us forge connections with the products we use today has tremen dous value as we build for tomorrow. Without further adieu, three moments in time:

Know What Matters - Reddit - May 26th, 2008

Five years ago, the Internet was a different place. Sites have changed radically in design, but one massive site has only changed a tiny bit.

Long before it could truly lay claim to being the frontpage of the Internet, Reddit looked, well, almost the same. You might not even know what the big difference is on a cursory glance.

Reddit on May 21st, 2008

This screenshot is from Wednesday May 21st, 2008 at 20:04:25. You’ll notice, the current voting score is right below the link in gray, along with post time, username, and number of comments. Now let’s flash forward almost four months to another Wednesday, this time June 18th, 2008 at 21:30:39.

Reddit on September 17th, 2008

Ignoring the explanation of Reddit to new users (now replaced with a sponsored link), the result is a list of links that’s much easier to parse. The voting score stands out now, making it immediately apparent what’s trending among Redditors.

The vote count matters and Reddit moved to make it highly available. As a result, it’s hard to ignore a story that’s flying up the frontpage. Sometimes it’s a small thing that can really change an experience.

Live in the Future - Sportsvision - September 27th, 1998

The year is 1978, and David Crain is fresh off a Ph.D where he studied semiconductor materials at USC. He patents an idea for an on-field graphic to improve the football experience on TV. According to Wikipedia, CBS’s technology center turns it down and decides it’s not ready to run with the idea.

Enter Stan Honey and Sportsvision, creators of the FoxTrax puck which first appeared in the 1996 all-star game. Stan and his team pick up where Crain left off - only 20 years later. The result is Sportsvision’s 1ST & TEN® product almost all football fans are familiar with today.

1ST & TEN® from Sportsvision

As the oft-quoted Paul Graham writes, “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” David Crain was in the future, but was bounded by the limits of technology. Once the hardware came around, Sportsvision did it’s grand unveiling during a week 4 Ravens-Bengals game on ESPN. At this point in time, most major broadcasters were iterating on basic graphics and player intros.

Since the yellow first down line in football, we’ve seen Olympic swimmers race superimposed World Record lines and watched curve balls travel through a superimposed strike zone. There is now a software layer in sports, and it’s made the game more accessible, understandable, and quantifiable.

Sportsvision has accumulated ten Emmys, with football’s yellow line as its first in the year 2000. The company now offers baseball, motorsports, Olympics and sailing products. SI covered the birth of the yellow line in more detail.

Grow with Direction - Microsoft - November 30th, 2006

Let’s say you’re doing great. You’re getting around to all those feature requests and it’s going to make your customers’ lives so much easier. Or is it. How do you fit all that new hotness onto one screen? Or even many screens?

In the four years between Office 2003 and Office 2007, feature upon feature is added. The office dev team cranks away. A big product gets bigger. Where does it all go?

As a refresher, let’s look at Word 2003.

Word 2003

Interesting. So what happens between 2003 and 2007? For one, Jensen Harris becomes Group Program Manager of the UX team in Office. He meets with this team and comes up with a series of UX tenets.

The first one: “A person’s focus should be on their content, not on the UI. Help people work without interference.” And the second: “Reduce the number of choices presented at any given time.” (The source for these is at 25:13 of a truly great presentation Jensen gave at UX Week in 2008).

The result of Jensen’s tenets combined with his team’s work is of course the ribbon we all know (and some of us love) today. So let’s look at Word 2007.

Word 2007

Stacking features fails when users can’t find the ones they’re used to or discover the shiny new ones they’re supposed to. Microsoft knew it couldn’t grow haphazardly and brought consistency to its suite with the ribbon.

Moving features is one of the hardest things to do once you’ve achieved traction so be cognizant as you’re building. As tempting as it may be to stack top-level UI with features, know the pains your users will endure when things may have to change. While the ribbon was a win, keep in mind there were many bitter Office users in the year 2007.

Growing software is hard and shrinking it is even harder. Do you cut features? Bury them in the UI?

Drafts are almost undiscoverable on Twitter’s iPhone app. You have to hold down the new tweet button. Is this bad UX for mobile? Do people even need 140 character drafts? It prevents clutter, but at the cost of discoverability. I’ll address some examples of shrinking desktop features to mobile in one of my next posts.

As always, feel free to reach out with feedback on Twitter.

Disclaimer: I worked at Microsoft and on Word specifically for some time, but not during any of the periods discussed in this post.