The evolution of music players: UX inspiration from history

People change technology and technology changes people.


Olesia Vdovenko

2 years ago | 3 min read

People change technology and technology changes people.

Taken from manual by philips

We, UX designers, are encouraged to use natural interactions in our design work. But what is really natural behaviour for people? It seems that our behaviour already heavily shaped by our surroundings, technology and history. We already using patterns that not as natural, origins of which for most, or even for all, not clear. So I wanted to research old music players to find what interactions were in there and how they evolved over time.

Here are some inventions that shaped music players and our perception of them.

Music box

First done small, then multiple big options were produced, the music box was created around the end of the 18th century and was the first option for those who wanted to enjoy music on the go or at home.

There is not a lot of interaction here, which makes it pretty easy to use, all you need just turn the handle several times and you are ready to hear the music. There are definitely limitations regarding function, but still, it did the job and no specific instructions were required.


Creation and idea that went into the music box is a mystery, some people point to clock making as to the origin of this invention. But it for sure inspired other inventions.

Pianola (play piano)

Created at the end of the 19th century, pianola combined music instrument and music player capabilities.

Generally, to play pianola you would:

  • set up rolls with music,
  • open hidden pedals and switchers,
  • toggle switch to the play position,
  • used other switchers to select a temp, and
  • pedal to hear the music.

There are several issues with interaction here:

  • Using pedals quite an exercise if you want to listen to several songs.
  • If you not careful with pedalling, you might rapture paper rolls with music. User should account for ending and slow down before that might happen.
  • With changeable piano rolls, this kind of music player should’ve taken quite a space.

Piano rolls also got some funny remarks regarding usage:

Even more remarkable is the way in which the piano-footy has simplified musical composition. The master of the past had to toil away painfully with pen and ink; whereas the composer of today can attain the same result with roll of paper and a ticket-punch. Judging from the progress we have made and are still making, it is safe to predict that the composer of the future will use a shotgun. Search Results .
Bizarre by Lawton Mackall

Almost immediately after pianola phonograph came to take the glory.


Created by Thomas Edison phonograph was a game-changer in recording and playing music.


Similarly to music boxes, most phonographs used turn-handle to wind up the motor. But interaction with Edison’s machine was complicated by cylinder records shape, setting it up and storing it wasn’t the easiest tasks. That’s why disc phonographs soon outshined it. Both versions had switcher that played the role of the play/pause button similar to what we could see in pianola.

It seems that radio invention influenced more modern phonographs to have controls before everyone embraced buttons.

Source of the image not clear

Here we can see familiar to us volume control that still referenced in some applications.

First cassette player by Philips

In 1963 first cassette player was introduced by Philips

Taken from manual by philips

It seems that it is the first time symbols similar to ⏪▶️⏩, that music players use all the time nowadays, were introduced. But opposed to buttons that we use now, it was switcher that went up/down and right/left making that symbols justified because they showed movement that you needed to do to achieve the result of playing/rewinding. Even though it is a more modern invention we can see similarities with technology that came before, the most obvious one controls for volume, we know now that other options available.

And now

Now, we just know those symbols from technology that surrounds us, not because it’s a really natural way of showing the action of playing, but because we used to it. Our scripts include new information now. It’s not just thousand-year-old languages and natural way of thought. It is also 50-year-old symbols that got introduced to us from a young age and many other patterns.We need to remember not only people change technology, but technology also changes people. I think we will understand people better if we sometimes take time to learn about interactions through history and how they shaped us.

Originaly posted on Medium


Created by

Olesia Vdovenko







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