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What is HCI?

HCI is a multidisciplinary field of study focusing on the interaction between humans and computers. While initially concerned with computers, HCI has since expanded to cover almost all forms of information technology.


This study has its roots both in the humanities (Communication, sociology, visual arts, cognitive psychology) and in computer science (Operating systems, programming languages, computer graphics). From this study, Interaction Design was born.


HCI is the study, while IxD and UX are its practices.


The birth of HCI

When computers first appeared on the commercial scene in the late 1950s, they were extremely difficult to use, cumbersome, and at times unpredictable. There were a number of reasons for this:

  • They were large and expensive machines

  • They were used only by technical specialists - scientists and engineers - who were familiar with the intricacies of off-line programming using punch cards.

  • Little was known about how to make them easier to see.

This changed disruptively with the emergence of personal computing in the later 1970s. Personal computing, including both personal software (productivity applications, such as text editors and spreadsheets, and interactive computer games) and personal computer platforms (operating systems, programming languages, and hardware), made everyone in the world a potential computer user. The term human-computer interaction was adopted in the mid-1980s, as a means of describing this new field of study. Since then HCI has expanded rapidly and steadily for three decades incorporating multiple disciplines, such as computer science, cognitive science, and human-factors engineering.


Why does HCI matter?

HCI is the study of how computers and machines can serve us better. It might sound simple, but this field is so fast-moving and exciting in the 21st century that it’s helped to bring around some of our proudest inventions, like virtual reality, self-driving cars, and all of your beloved touch screen technology.


The kind of information that HCI practitioners compile is used to constantly refine the world of UX design. Without constant testing, polling, and data gathering, the concept of intuitive computer usability will stagnate, and IT products, like phones and laptops, will continue to be designed in ways that fall short of serving the end-user.


Human-Computer Interaction enables UX and User Interface (UI) designers all over the world to produce better, more user-focused computers, helping every consumer of that product or service. From ensuring machines continue to operate in safe, secure, and user-friendly ways, to allow users of all abilities to interact with computers, HCI is invaluable in making sure that computers are designed for successful and intuitive human use.


How to design better human-friendly interfaces?

For computers to be widely accepted and used effectively they need to be well designed. This is not to say that all systems have to be designed to accommodate everyone, but that computers should be designed for the needs and capabilities of the people for whom they are intended. Ultimately, users should not even have to think about the intricacies of how to use a computer. Donald Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things, and Turn Signal are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, identifies two key principles that help to ensure good HCI: visibility and affordance. Controls need to be visible, with good mapping with their effects, and their design should also suggest (that is, afford) their functionality.


HCI design should be user-centered and involve users as much as possible so that they can influence it. A good design should also be highly iterative so that testing can be done to check that the design does indeed meet users' requirements.



The goals of HCI

The aims are to produce usable and safe systems, as well as functional systems. Usability, a key concept in HCI, is concerned with making systems easy to learn and easy to use. Poorly designed computer systems can be extremely annoying o users. In order to produce computer systems with good usability, developers must attempt to:

  • Understand the factors that determine how people use technology

  • Develop tools and techniques to enable building suitable systems

  • Achieve efficient, effective, and safe interaction

  • Put people first

Underlying the whole theme of HCI is the belief that people using a computer system should come first. Their needs, capabilities, and preferences for conducting various tasks should direct developers in the way that they design systems. People should not have to change the way that they use a system in order to fit in with it. Instead, the system should be designed to match their requirements.




Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash