Human-Computer Interaction

The Basic Idea

Most of us interact with computers daily. Whether you’re sending an email from your laptop, looking up directions on your phone, streaming a movie on your smart TV, or scanning your groceries at a self-checkout, you’re engaging in a form of two-way communication with a computer. These encounters are only increasing in frequency as society becomes rapidly digitized.

With the emergence of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, there’s always more to learn about how humans and computers interact. As such, studying human-computer interaction is fundamental to creating systems that align with the needs, behaviors, and experiences of users.

Put simply, human-computer interaction (HCI) refers to the field of research dedicated to understanding and improving interactions between humans and computers. HCI is a multidisciplinary field, combining elements of computer science, design, psychology, ergonomics, and usability engineering to determine how we can design and implement interactive computer interfaces that meet the needs of the user—and ultimately enhance the user experience.1

Taking input from these various disciplines, HCI consolidates what we know about both computers and humans into one integrative field of study. On the computer side, HCI studies operating systems, computer interfaces, and programming languages. On the human side, HCI studies user experience, linguistics, social sciences, and various psychological disciplines including behavioral science, cognitive psychology, and social psychology.

As you can see, the field of HCI is vast and far-reaching. To simplify the concept, HCI can be broken into four main components:

  • The user: The individual using the computer. This component focuses on the user’s individual experiences, preferences, emotions, and behaviors.
  • The goal-oriented task: The objective or goal of the user. This component considers the workflows and processes of users when interacting with a system.
  • The interface: The hardware and software that allows users to interact with the computer.
  • The context: The environmental and situational factors that influence human-computer interactions, from lighting and noise to policies and cultural norms.

Understanding these four components helps designers create computer interfaces that allow users to accomplish tasks in specific contexts of use. Thus, HCI is concerned with creating digital systems that are user-based, task-oriented, and contextually appropriate. For example, when designing a smart home device, HCI principles ensure homeowners can control and monitor their home via convenient features like voice commands and automated schedules.

Whether we’re communicating with a human or a machine, the goal is to create a shared understanding of the world. That’s the point behind both the rules governing polite conversation and how a user-friendly machine should work.


- Cliff Kuang, UX designer and author of User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play

Key Terms

User Interface (UI): The point of interaction between a person and a computer. A computer’s UI includes hardware, such as display screens and keyboards, as well as software-based digital elements, such as buttons and other graphics on the screen.

Usability: How easy and enjoyable a user interface is to use. More specifically, usability is concerned with how easily users can navigate the interface, accomplish basic tasks, and avoid errors.

User Experience (UX): The experience of a user when interacting with a digital product, such as a website or app. While usability refers to the interface’s ease of use, UX focuses on how a customer feels when using the interface.

User-Centered Design (UCD): A design process that involves creating products based on a deep understanding of user needs. UCD considers the users’ requirements as well as the context in which people will use the product.2

Social Computing: A branch of HCI that focuses on the relationship between human behavior and computers. Social computing research is rooted in psychology and sociology, concerning how technology supports or creates opportunities for social interaction. Blogs, email, instant messaging, and online forums are examples of social computing.

History

HCI emerged as a field of study as personal computers grew in popularity through the 1970s and 1980s.3 Up until then, computers were mainly used by IT professionals and employees who received specific training on enterprise-level computing systems. This abruptly changed with the introduction of the personal computer in the 1970s. Once everyone could purchase and use computers, experts noticed the growing importance of focusing on user needs when designing computer interfaces.

As we established earlier, HCI is a multidisciplinary field. It emerged from the combined research and contributions of experts in various industries, including psychology and computer science. During this time, the popularization of cognitive science marked a key shift in the understanding of human cognition and behavior. Researchers in cognitive psychology offered valuable insights into how humans perceive, interpret, and remember information, and designers began incorporating these psychological concepts into UI design.4

The term “human-computer interface” was popularized by Stuart K. Card, Allen Newell, and Thomas P. Moran in their 1983 book, The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction. In the book, the authors explored important HCI topics including cognitive frameworks and interface design, providing insights into how people interact with computers and suggesting how we can span the gap between research and application.

In the early 2000s, researchers began examining how emerging technologies have created new ways for humans to interact with computers.5 These interaction methods include eye-tracking, speech, gestures, and even brain activity. Today, the use of multiple sensing modalities is commonplace in many human-computer interactions, especially those that take place in virtual reality (VR).

Consequences

As a research discipline, HCI has significantly improved our understanding of the interaction between human behavior and computing. Today, designers use HCI insights to create UIs that perfectly align with user needs and expectations.6 This ensures people of varying abilities and expertise can use computing systems, regardless of whether they have technical knowledge or received formal training.

Advancements in Consumer-Facing Technology

HCI principles have been key in creating systems that streamline everyday tasks for consumers. For example, self-service checkouts are available in almost every supermarket, allowing customers to scan their products and check out on their own.7 Many stores also have self-service stations where customers can retrieve product information by scanning a barcode or searching the store’s inventory. Thanks to HCI research, these everyday tools are becoming increasingly user-friendly, accessible, and personalized toward individual consumer needs. 

Industrial Applications of HCI

HCI also has several industrial applications.8 Nearly every industry uses computing for day-to-day activities, and HCI is crucial in designing efficient, usable, and safe systems. For example, in manufacturing, HCI plays a vital role in the design of control panels and touchscreen displays used by machine operators. In these environments, poorly designed computer interfaces can lead to serious—and often dangerous—errors. The same goes for computers used in healthcare, transportation, engineering, agriculture, and emergency response. User-based design, on the other hand, creates opportunities for improvements in both efficiency and safety.

Economic Influences

These advancements in innovation and productivity have stimulated economic growth in nearly every industry. HCI has improved UX across the board, expanding the reach and appeal of digital products and leading to greater adoption by consumers. This has increased the demand for technology and significantly influenced market trends. It’s clear that the HCI field has created new opportunities for businesses, driving investment and generating new jobs. HCI has even cultivated new industries such as digital entertainment, e-commerce, and social media, which have further contributed to economic growth.

Through the development of user-friendly interfaces, HCI has also improved productivity in office environments by streamlining processes and reducing errors. For example, the development of collaboration tools made it possible for teams to work together virtually, contributing to significant cost savings for businesses.

Controversies

Ethical Concerns

HCI has certainly shaped how we live, but the field also raises some ethical dilemmas.9 One of these major ethical concerns involves issues with data privacy. Because the study of HCI focuses on how people interact with technology, research in the field relies on the collection and analysis of user data—which is key to understanding user behavior. However, this practice elicits questions about how we can collect informed consent, prevent the misuse of personal data, and ensure sensitive data remains private. Researchers in the field of HCI walk a fine line between uncovering valuable user insights and protecting people's data privacy rights.

Societal Impact as a Double-Edged Sword

Unfortunately, the impact of HCI on society is not always positive. Technological innovations can often have detrimental effects on people and communities. For one thing, user-centered design has the power to influence human behavior, even going so far as to change how people communicate. These changes can lead to potential harms, such as social isolation from decreased face-to-face interaction. Moreover, digital products designed to optimize user engagement can be incredibly addictive, affecting the well-being of users.10

Job security is another societal issue with HCI advancements. While it’s true that the field has created many new jobs, the emergence of new human-computer interaction systems puts other jobs at risk. It’s been suggested that 73 million U.S. jobs could be lost to automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies by 2030. Advanced systems have streamlined human-computer interactions to a point where computers now require very little human input to produce the desired output. What happens when the human element of human-computer interaction becomes obsolete? How will AI shape the future of HCI? Current and ongoing research in the HCI field seeks to answer questions like these.11

Case Study

HCI has become integral in the process of designing products and services that cater to users. For example, in the field of health and well-being, mobile health apps leverage HCI behavioral insights to promote positive health behaviors. Developers often incorporate known behavioral science principles—such as goal-setting, social support, rewards, and progress tracking—into the design of these apps. The resulting human-computer interactions benefit the user, ultimately contributing to the success of health-promoting technologies.

When it comes to media and entertainment technology, HCI research allows developers to create UIs that are easy and enjoyable to use. For example, Netflix leverages machine-learning algorithms to personalize the platform, leading to more efficient human-computer interactions.3 Collecting and analyzing data allows Netflix to tailor the UI to each user, ensuring people can find something enjoyable to watch as quickly as possible. This data-driven approach to UI design ensures the platform is usable by anyone.

Related TDL Content

User Interface

Every human-computer interaction takes place through the user interface (UI). Check out this article to learn more about UI design and the incredible history behind the development of modern-day interfaces.

Designing for the world: How to achieve culturally attuned UX

This article emphasizes the importance of considering cultural nuances when designing user experiences. Successful UX designs are culturally relevant, which is more involved than simply translating the content into the language of your target audience. Learn how culturally attuned design is key to creating digital usability on a global scale.

References

  1. Carroll, J. M. (n.d.). What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)? | IxDF. The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved February 12, 2024, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/human-computer-interaction
  2. User-Centered Design Basics. (n.d.). Usability.gov. Retrieved February 12, 2024, from https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/user-centered-design.html
  3. The Evolution of Human-Computer Interaction: A Review of the Past and Future Directions. (n.d.). Association of Human-Computer Interaction. Retrieved February 12, 2024, from https://www.hci.org.uk/article/the-evolution-of-human-computer-interaction-a-review-of-the-past-and-future-directions/
  4. Carroll, J. M. (n.d.). Human Computer Interaction - brief intro | The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed. The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved February 12, 2024, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/human-computer-interaction-brief-intro
  5. Sharma, Rajeev & Pavlovic, Vladimir. (1998). Toward Multimodal Human-Computer Interface. Proceedings of the IEEE. 86(5), 853-869. doi: 10.1109/5.664275
  6. Carroll J. M. (1997). Human-computer interaction: psychology as a science of design. Annual review of psychology, 48, 61-83. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.48.1.61
  7. Obermeier, G., Auinger, A. (2019). Human-Computer Interaction in Physical Retail Environments and the Impact on Customer Experience: Systematic Literature Review and Research Agenda. LNISA, 11588. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-22335-9_4
  8. Moencks, M., Roth, E., Bohné, T. & Kristensson, P. (2022) Human-Computer Interaction in Industry: A Systematic Review on the Applicability and Value-added of Operator Assistance Systems. Now Foundations and Trends. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/9954328
  9. Dhirani, L. L., Mukhtiar, N., Chowdhry, B. S., & Newe, T. (2023). Ethical Dilemmas and Privacy Issues in Emerging Technologies: A Review. Sensors (Basel, Switzerland), 23(3), 1151. https://doi.org/10.3390/s23031151
  10. Chen, X., Hedman, A., Distler, V. & Koenig, V. (2023) Do persuasive designs make smartphones more addictive? A mixed-methods study on Chinese university students. Computers in Human Behavior Reports, 10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chbr.2023.100299
  11. A. Sharma, A. Gupta, A. Bhargava, A. Rawat, P. Yadav & D. Gupta (2023) From Sci-Fi to Reality: The Evolution of Human-Computer Interaction with Artificial Intelligence. 2023 2nd International Conference on Applied Artificial Intelligence and Computing (ICAAIC). 127-134, doi: 10.1109/ICAAIC56838.2023.10141431

About the Author

Kira Warje

Kira Warje

Kira holds a degree in Psychology with an extended minor in Anthropology. Fascinated by all things human, she has written extensively on cognition and mental health, often leveraging insights about the human mind to craft actionable marketing content for brands. She loves talking about human quirks and motivations, driven by the belief that behavioural science can help us all lead healthier, happier, and more sustainable lives. Occasionally, Kira dabbles in web development and enjoys learning about the synergy between psychology and UX design.

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