What is HCI?

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is the study of how people interact with technology interfaces in order to learn how they can support people better in their daily lives. Thanks to Human-Computer Interaction, we have increasingly intuitive and accessible digital products which are made in a user-focused way. This article will look in greater detail about HCI, how it works, and how IT professionals can think about HCI when they are creating design and IT-related products.

Why is HCI important?

Without HCI, computers and other technological devices would be created in a way that doesn’t best support the people using them. For example, websites would be made without search bars or accessible menus, touch-screens would never have developed, and VR and AR would probably be the work of science fiction. The more we think about how humans interact with machines and how to make that process easier and more accessible – the more we are able to create amazing inventions that push the digital age forward.

Back in the early days of computing, they had a tremendous learning curve, and needed a lot of training and L&D in order to support users in getting value. Things we do every day, like highlighting text, using keyboard commands, or even dragging and dropping were brand new and posed huge challenges. HCI was developed to support designers, engineers and technicians in making machines that were easier to use, and in developing intuitive ways to get the most out of technology.

Nowadays, we think about more than simple usability when we consider HCI. We also include elements like how fun the device is to use, without being addictive or establishing dependencies, and how easy a whole journey is from end to end. Think about the sending of an email. It starts before the email client has been opened, from the point of turning on the device through to using the keyboard to type and recognizing that the email has been successfully sent, or even getting a notification that a reply has arrived.

Is HCI the same as UX design?

There are a lot of similarities and connections between the two, but not really. While those who study Human- Computer Interaction will learn a lot that can inform UX design, there is a lot more involved in UX design, such as graphic design and technical skills. In contrast, HCI will focus on the evidence and psychology behind how people interact with machines, and provide important research that informs how UX design is completed.

Ideas to understand from the HCI world

HCI is a huge topic, and there are many books and courses you can delve into for more information, but here are some helpful concepts to get started which have helped inform the growth and trajectory of HCI.

1. Perception

Users should be able to interact with any given machine without assistance. Think about how you can see a green and a red button, and intuitively understand that the green is the start button and the red one means stop. If you get the idea of perception right, then your users will have a meaningful experience when using the technology, and you can eliminate a lot of the learning curve frustration that occurs when you’re introduced to a new piece of tech.

2. Behavioral models

You can lean on existing behavioral models to help enhance your understanding of HCI. For example, we know how long it will take users to input a certain number of keystrokes, and we know how long the average attention span is, so we can use this to make intelligent estimations about the tasks we give people to complete. Fitt’s Law is one famous model in HCI, which is used to predict how long it takes people to carry out specific tasks. Other behavioral models might explain the kinds of shortcuts and macros that users rely on. While some people like to use touchscreen, others will continue to use a mouse, even when touchscreen is available. Some gamers use a joystick while others prefer the WASD keys. Understanding preferences and outcomes can support HCI researchers in creating user-friendly designs.

3. Shneiderman’s 8 Golden Rules

Companies that are well known for incorporating HCI principles are Apple, Microsoft, Google and more. These are businesses who understand the importance of simplicity and making their technology easy to use. They regularly lean on Ben Shneiderman’s Golden Rules, which we’ll outline very briefly below. You can see some examples of how Apple et al use these Golden Rules here.

  • Consistency: Make sure that a consistent action has a consistent response. If your users expect the search box to be top left, don’t suddenly move it to bottom right on the next page. If CTRL X means “Cut”, it shouldn’t mean “Delete” somewhere else.
  • Shortcuts: Add ways to quickly do common actions, so that users can reduce the time it takes to access their information or complete a task.
  • Feedback: Bake in informative feedback into the technical process. The system should be able to provide a pop-up or response to why something worked or did not.
  • Grouping: A number of actions should make up a logical group where you start, continue and close a task. This will give users a feeling of satisfaction. For example, starting a search, watching it happen, and then opening the desired file.
  • Error handling: Create your application for a user with very limited technical knowledge, so that the UI itself doesn’t allow certain problems. For example, a phone doesn’t allow users to input letters when the device is on the call screen.
  • Undo! Make sure that users can easily go back to the last screen or action, and undo the task they just completed. This will help users to be curious and stop them worrying about making a mistake. Think about using back arrows or CTRL+Z which users are familiar with.
  • Control: Users need to feel like they are fully in control of the flow and journey. Automatic actions should either happen behind the scenes, or with a prompt from the person using the machine.
  • Simplicity: Keep journeys to three actions or less, or users will find it hard to remember how to use that feature. You can create shortcuts to make this easier for more complex tasks.

The whole goal of HCI is to design tech to make it simple, accessible and useful to people. Whether it’s adding accessibility features for those who may have disabilities, adding user-centric design features such as search bars or tutorials, or considering the latest understanding of human psychology to present the most intuitive and simple design, it’s well worth considering HCI when you’re developing applications and digital UIs.

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