The Usability Testing Central blog has an interesting, compact history of usability.
World War II was the starting point of electronics and electrical systems controlled by human operators through a "user interface". Industrial psychologists such as John Flanagan discovered that by reducing the amount of buttons, knobs, switches and control panels in new fighter aircraft- they could also dramatically improve operator performance.This led to something called the Critical Incident Technique (or CIT), used in the transition of the Supermarine Spitfire to the P-51 Mustang fighter cockpit.
The 50s + 60s established a lot of the basic hardware and software but the next key marker was the establishment of Xerox's PARC (Palo Alto Research Center)
Xerox is largely responsible for much of the innovation in user interfaces (still in use today!). Many know these as WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pulldowns). Xerox R&D work and resulting usability and user interface innovations propelled the current age of corporate usability research.This led to the Apple Mac and usability became the norm in computing R+D.
Then came the web and , in particular, the explosion of unusable websites during the dotcom boom. See the infamous boo.com, right.
Eventually the usability gurus Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug prevail.
"In our first year we didn't spend a single dollar on advertising... the best dollars spent are those we use to improve the customer experience." - Jeff Bezos, Amazon.comNow we're at Web 2.0 and the phrase is 'user experience'.