Human-Computer Interaction

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Human-Computer Interaction

by Geoff Keston

Docid: 00018044

Publication Date: 2211

Report Type: TUTORIAL


The study of how humans use computers — and are influenced by them —
extends far beyond technology. Human-computer interaction is a formal area
of academic study, spanning multiple disciplines, and a subject of product
development in the IT industry. This scholarly and commercial work
provides insights about long-term trends and can shed light on short-term
business decision-making.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Developers of hardware and software exert significant influence over how
consumers use their products. At the same time, the design choices of
developers are heavily shaped by usage habits beyond their control.

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These two dynamics — that the design of computer technology both directs
human behavior and is subject to it — define the field of human-computer
interaction (HCI). HCI is a decades-old multidisciplinary academic field
incorporating ideas from computer science, neuroscience, sociology, art,
psychology, and other domains. It is also a major concern in business:
Hardware and software developers and cloud and social media companies
depend significantly on their ability to understand how their offerings
are used.

For companies making decisions about using technology, it is crucial to
understand the habits of particular users, whether they are employees
working with internal systems or customers interacting with, for example,
commercial e-commerce software integrated into a corporate Web site. And for
developers of technology, similar research is important to understand how
customers use their products; this research is best performed within the
narrow context of a developer’s industry because general knowledge about how
people interact with computers will be much less relevant.


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Human-computer interaction (HCI) spans a broad range of issues. At its
most technical and practical it asks questions such as, What are the
potential alternatives to mice and keyboards? On the other end of the
spectrum, HCI looks beyond technology to consider societal issues and
questions of human well-being.

The following excerpts from the “Aims & Scope” page of the scholarly
journal Human-Computer Interaction demonstrates the field’s

“HCI seeks to foster a scientific
understanding of the cognitive and social behavior of system users and the
organizational and social impacts of that usage. Studies of usage can
cover individuals, groups, communities, organizations, and networks, as
well as societal impacts of system use.

“HCI seeks to foster rational discussion of,
and methods for, the design of computer systems and the evaluation of
existing systems. HCI is interested in a range of issues from new
user-interface techniques to the process of system design.”1

The journal also describes itself as “multidisciplinary,” a term often
used to describe HCI. Offering a similarly broad description of HCI,
artificial intelligence researcher Vijay Kanade includes”computer science,
behavioral sciences, cognitive science, ergonomics, psychology, and design
principles” in his definition.2

Kanade breaks down the discipline into the following considerations:

  • “The user” — Individuals or groups are studied in terms of factors
    such as their goals and abilities.
  • “The goal-oriented task” — Tasks such as buying a product or filling
    out a form can be defined in terms of factors including their complexity
    and the time needed to complete them.
  • “The interface” — HCI considers both hardware and software
    interfaces and studies ease of use and accessibility.
  • “The context” — Real-world considerations, such as when and where
    technology will be used, form its context. Kanade cites as examples
    lighting conditions and network connections.

But Kanade’s framework is only one way to categorize the discipline. HCI
can also be broken down into the two broad perspectives from which it is

  • One approach uses techniques from disciplines such as sociology to
    study how humans use computers and are affected by them. Such research
    is observational.
  • The other approach seeks to change HCI, treating the subject as a
    design challenge. Potential design changes can be as commonplace as a
    social media company working to increase the time visitors spend on its
    site to as esoteric as creating computer programs using wooden blocks.

Current View

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Progress and Stagnation

Researchers have studied HCI for decades. One measure of the field’s
maturity is that the scholarly journal Human-Computer Interaction
has been published since 1985. In that time, remarkable progress has been
made in many ways. For example, computers controlled directly by brains
have been developed,3 and sensors that track and monitor
patients, exchanging data with other networked systems, are used widely in

On the other hand, a measure of how stagnant the field has been — in
some respects
— can be seen by comparing the following excerpt
from the journal’s first issue, an article about “Affect in
Computer-Meditated Communication,” with a scholarly article published in

Table 1. Excerpts from Scholarly Articles on HCI


“With the spread of computer networks, communication
via computer conferences, electronic mail, and computer bulletin
boards will become more common in society, but little is known
about the social psychological implications of these technologies.
One possibility is a change in physiological arousal, feelings,
and expressive behavior — that is, affect. These
computer-mediated communication technologies focus attention on
the message, transmit social information poorly, and do not have a
well-developed social etiquette.”5

A scholarly research article published in 2021 on
“netiquette,” the rules and standards for interpersonal behavior
online, found that despite much being written about the topic, the
cyber “social etiquette” that was speculated about in 1985 “is a
poorly defined line of research, both in theory and in practice.6

A Complex Story

HCI is not just one subject, but many. To see how the multi-threaded
nature of HCI plays out in practice, one can consider the development of
cell phones. Just as HCI is multidisciplinary, the story of cell phones
involves technology, business, and human behavior. It includes both
intentional design and the uncontrolled evolution. And it is not a single
narrative but instead many trends and events that in some cases influence
each other but that are also in many ways independent.

An example of intentionality is that in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the
iPhone in a speech that has become legendary in the industry. The first
iPhone established the core design for today’s smartphones and enabled
mobile-dependent companies such as Uber and Doordash to launch.7
The text of Job’s speech reveals that Apple understood just how much the
iPhone (and the devices it later influenced) would change technology and

Examples of natural evolution are the growth of bring-your-own-device
(BYOD) programs and the more recent pandemic-inspired increase in working
from home, which combined have blurred the distinction between business
and consumer devices. BYOD emerged gradually, in response to user habits,
and the spike in remote work was triggered by a global health crisis.


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The future of HCI will not follow a single narrative. The subject spans
many technical, academic, marketplace, and social issues, and it will
develop at different paces and in different ways in each niche.

Some insight into niche developments that may be on the horizon can be
gathered from studying the work on research labs. For example, the
University of Chicago’s Department of Computer Science is working on the
following relevant subjects:

  • “Computing for anyone,” which forces on increasing equity in how
    “computational thinking” is taught in schools.
  • Designing robots that interact with humans more effectively in terms
    of social and group dynamics.
  • Researching “to make the Internet more trustworthy and inclusive,”
    focusing on “usable privacy and security, ubiquitous computing, and
    computing for marginalized and under-served populations.”
  • Building “interactive devices that integrate directly with the user’s
    body,” which the researchers view as the next step beyond wearable

The perspective of the researchers leading the last project mentioned, on
“bodily-integrated” technology, provides insight into how HCI is about
much more than technology:

“We think bodily-integrated interactive devices are beneficial as they
enable new modes of reasoning with computers, going beyond just symbolic
thinking (reasoning by typing and reading language on a screen). While
this physical integration between human and computer is beneficial in many
ways (e.g., faster reaction time, realistic simulations in VR/AR, faster
skill acquisition, etc.), it also requires tackling new challenges, such
as improving the precision of muscle stimulation or the question of
agency: do we feel in control when our body is integrated with an


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HCI raises different issues for companies that develop technology than
for those that only use it. The recommendations below are divided into
those about HCI considerations for using technology and those about HCI
considerations for developing technology.

Companies Using Technology

Some aspects of how humans use computers are common, and companies can
refer to general published research to learn foundational information
about HCI.

But organizations also have their own cultures, and their employees
don’t exactly mirror the demographics of subjects in scholarly research
studies. Therefore, to supplement findings from generic research,
organizations can also study and survey their employees to ascertain how
they use computers and what their preferences are. And even companies that
don’t develop technology often use commercial software to deliver services
to customers, such as to provide an online ordering system.

Factors to research include:

  • Employee habits
  • Customer habits
  • Policy setting
  • Purchasing decisions
  • Security

Companies Developing Technology

Focus on Your Niche

In HCI, context matters greatly. Small differences in how, when, and
where technology is used can determine whether an interface works well.
Therefore, product developers would be best served by focusing on the
habits of their target users and learning from the products developed by
direct competitors.

Understand What You Can Control (and What You Can’t)

To a significant extent, employees and customers will use software and
devices as they see fit. While developers can dictate user behavior in
substantial ways, much lies outside their control. Developers thus need to
understand the constraints under which they are working and routinely, in
various ways, study their users.

Keep an Eye on the Cutting Edge

The story of Blackberry’s great early success and later spectacular
collapse provides a warning to product developers about HCI. The company
at first made an accurate prediction about what type of device business
users would find useful, and it designed popular products that met their
needs. But after the iPhone emerged as a competitor, Blackberry’s founder
failed to see the appeal of a multi-functional mobile computer, continuing
to believe that people instead would prefer to use a device like a

A lesson to learn from this is that the interactions between humans and
computers matters, and understanding this ever-evolving relationship
challenges even experts.


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About the Author

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Geoff Keston is the author of  more than 250
articles that help organizations find opportunities in business trends and
technology. He also works directly with clients to develop communications
strategies that improve processes and customer relationships. Mr. Keston
has worked as a project manager for a major technology consulting and
services company and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and a
Certified Novell Administrator.

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