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A tribute to Larry Tesler, the father of user-friendly design

An early pioneer of usable computing died at 74.

A tribute to Larry Tesler, the father of user-friendly design
Larry Tesler (center), from Apple Computer, at the annual PC Forum, Tucson, Arizona, March 10-13, 1991. [Photo: Ann E. Yow-Dyson/Getty Images]

One of the key figureheads behind the modern computer is gone. Larry Tesler, best known as the creator of the ubiquitous commands “cut,” “copy,” and “paste,” passed away earlier this week at age 74. He was part of the golden age of research at Xerox PARC, which bit by bit, transformed the computer from a black box mainframe programmed by esoteric codes into a device that anyone could quickly learn through their own intuition.

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He also created the most well-known trope in modern design: the idea of “user friendliness,” as detailed in a 2005 feature in IEEE Spectrum.

In 1974, a Xerox Corp. salesman, assigned to sell the company’s new product, a word processor, came to PARC complaining about how hard the devices were to use. Tesler’s colleagues sent the salesman to talk with Tesler, who had a reputation for being passionate about ease of use. The salesman said to Tesler, “It’s really hard to sell this stuff, the software is just so unfriendly.” “Unfriendly?” Tesler responded. “That’s an interesting way to think about it. So you want friendly software, software that is friendly to the user.” From that day on Tesler started to throw the word “friendly” into every report he wrote, and it moved into the lexicon, hitting Time magazine in 1975, when a Xerox executive said the goal of PARC was to make software friendly to the user.

Tesler’s first breakthrough happened at Xerox PARC through ethnographic research, the type of discussions and observations that drive what one might call “design thinking” today. He had a new secretary. She’d only used high-end typewriters before, so he valued her tabula rasa view of word processing. Tesler asked her to sit at a blank computer monitor and describe her ideal way to take notes and write documents. What she described was Gypsy, which Tesler would then create alongside Timothy Mott.

Gypsy was not the world’s first word processor, but the first word processor as you know it. Gypsy allowed the use of a keyboard and mouse at the same time. It eliminated “modes,” a trope of computation that makes software switch entirely out of one functionality to access another. For instance, in Gypsy’s predecessor, if you wanted to insert text, that was its own mode you accessed by typing “I.” You typed everything you wanted to insert at once. And then when you left insert mode, all of the new text would be inserted.

Tesler, who had a license plate that read “NO MODES,” pioneered something different with Gypsy. To insert a word, you just placed the mouse cursor wherever you wanted to type. He also let users highlight words, dragging the mouse from the first to last letter, or just double tapping them instead. Along with a new copy function, this new UI added up to the workflow cut, copy, and paste as we know it—though I’d argue his greater contribution was every micro-decision about how the mouse should interact with words on the screen. Gypsy could be learned in just two to three hours. It was truly user friendly.

Tesler would go on to have a rich career beyond Xerox PARC. He spent 17 years at Apple, beginning with work on Lisa (the precursor to the Macintosh) and later, the Newton (the precursor to the iPad). His belief in ease of use led Apple to stick with the one-button mouse for decades, so the machines didn’t ostracize new users. He’d also serve as the company’s chief scientist and VP of advanced technologies. After leaving Apple, he made the rounds at some of the brightest next-wave technology companies, including Amazon, Yahoo!, and 23andMe. While obituaries have started to pour in, there’s almost no doubt that more stories of Tesler’s influence will crop up over the coming weeks and months. As the man who coined the term “user friendly,” he briefly regretted using the term, as its meaning gave way to meaningless marketing in the 1980s. But eventually, he warmed to it again. Indeed, for any designed object to be user friendly is an idea so sensible that it will never go out of style.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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