John E. Karlin: A Bell Labs Industrial Psychologist Who Helped Define How We Use A Phone.

It is sometimes easy to forget that behind every invention and product decision sits an idea man—someone who pondered and thought and examined and imagined something different than had been thought of before. 

Decades ago, there was a small group of social scientists and engineers who defined the experience of using the telephone in the mid-20th century and afterward—helping shape the designs of digital touch-tone phones which slowly did-away with the old rotary dial, and still exist today.

A Bell Labs industrial psychologist named John E. Karlin led that team of social scientists and engineers who would help usher in the push-button all-digit dialing keypads of phones as we do today. Only the introduction of the touchpad made popular by Apple has changed what these men helped create decades ago. The team evaluated the viability and usability of round buttons and square buttons. The thought about how big should they be, and how should they be arrayed. In a circle? A rectangle? An arc?

It can be said that work of John E. Karlin directed the creation of the modern telephone by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, and then directing products to accommodate their needs.

“He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design,” Ed Israelski, an engineer who worked under Mr. Karlin at Bell Labs in the 1970s, is quoted in The New York Times.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the touch-tone phone, and sadly, the passing of Mr. Karlin who died recently at the age of 94.

Without this idea man—this behavioral observer, we may not have the rectangular design of the keypad as we know today, or press buttons in the shape squares, or see the position of the numbers — with “1-2-3” on the top row instead of the bottom— as all sprang from empirical research conducted or overseen by Mr. Karlin. The legacy of that research now extends far beyond the man, and his thoughts.

His full obituary is at The New York Times


Phone image courtesy of Shutterstock


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