Human-computer interaction (HCI) is defined as the field of study that focuses on optimizing how users and computers interact by designing interactive computer interfaces that satisfy users’ needs. This article explains the fundamentals of HCI, its goals, importance, and examples.
Table of Contents
- What Is HCI?
- Importance of HCI
- Examples of HCI
- Goals of HCI
Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the field of study that focuses on optimizing how users and computers interact by designing interactive computer interfaces that satisfy users’ needs. It is a multidisciplinary subject covering computer science, behavioral sciences, cognitive science, ergonomics, psychology, and design principles.
The emergence of HCI dates back to the 1980s, when personal computing was on the rise. It was when desktop computers started appearing in households and corporate offices. HCI’s journey began with video games, word processors, and numerical units.
However, with the advent of the internet and the explosion of mobile and diversified technologies such as voice-based and Internet of Things (IoT), computing became omnipresent and omnipotent. Technological competence further led to the evolution of user interactions. Consequently, the need for developing a tool that would make such man-machine interactions more human-like grew significantly. This established HCI as a technology, bringing different fields such as cognitive engineering, linguistics, neuroscience, and others under its realm.
Today, HCI focuses on designing, implementing, and evaluating interactive interfaces that enhance user experience using computing devices. This includes user interface design, user-centered design, and user experience design.
Key components of HCI
Fundamentally, HCI is made up of four key components:
1. The user
The user component refers to an individual or a group of individuals that participate in a common task. HCI studies users’ needs, goals, and interaction patterns. It analyzes various parameters such as users’ cognitive capabilities, emotions, and experiences to provide them with a seamless experience while interacting with computing systems.
2. The goal-oriented task
A user operates a computer system with an objective or goal in mind. The computer provides a digital representation of objects to accomplish this goal. For example, booking an airline for a destination could be a task for an aviation website. In such goal-oriented scenarios, one should consider the following aspects for a better user experience:
- The complexity of the task that the user intends to accomplish
- Knowledge and skills necessary to interact with the digital object
- Time required to carry out the task
3. The interface
The interface is a crucial HCI component that can enhance the overall user interaction experience. Various interface-related aspects must be considered, such as interaction type (touch, click, gesture, or voice), screen resolution, display size, or even color contrast. Users can adjust these depending on the user’s needs and requirements.
For example, consider a user visiting a website on a smartphone. In such a case, the mobile version of the website should only display important information that allows the user to navigate through the site easily. Moreover, the text size should be appropriately adjusted so that the user is in a position to read it on the mobile device. Such design optimization boosts user experience as it makes them feel comfortable while accessing the site on a mobile phone.
4. The context
HCI is not only about providing better communication between users and computers but also about factoring in the context and environment in which the system is accessed. For example, while designing a smartphone app, designers need to evaluate how the app will visually appear in different lighting conditions (during day or night) or how it will perform when there is a poor network connection. Such aspects can have a significant impact on the end-user experience.
Thus, HCI is a result of continuous testing and refinement of interface designs that can affect the context of use for the users.
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HCI is crucial in designing intuitive interfaces that people with different abilities and expertise usually access. Most importantly, human-computer interaction is helpful for communities lacking knowledge and formal training on interacting with specific computing systems.
With efficient HCI designs, users need not consider the intricacies and complexities of using the computing system. User-friendly interfaces ensure that user interactions are clear, precise, and natural.
Let’s understand the importance of HCI in our day-to-day lives:
1. HCI in daily lives
Today, technology has penetrated our routine lives and has impacted our daily activities. To experience HCI technology, one need not own or use a smartphone or computer. When people use an ATM, food dispensing machine, or snack vending machine, they inevitably come in contact with HCI. This is because HCI plays a vital role in designing the interfaces of such systems that make them usable and efficient.
Industries that use computing technology for day-to-day activities tend to consider HCI a necessary business-driving force. Efficiently designed systems ensure that employees are comfortable using the systems for their everyday work. With HCI, systems are easy to handle, even for untrained staff.
HCI is critical for designing safety systems such as those used in air traffic control (ATC) or power plants. The aim of HCI, in such cases, is to make sure that the system is accessible to any non-expert individual who can handle safety-critical situations if the need arises.
3. Accessible to disabled
The primary objective of HCI is to design systems that make them accessible, usable, efficient, and safe for anyone and everyone. This implies that people with a wide range of capabilities, expertise, and knowledge can easily use HCI-designed systems. It also encompasses people with disabilities. HCI tends to rely on user-centered techniques and methods to make systems usable for people with disabilities.
4. An integral part of software success
HCI is an integral part of software development companies that develop software for end-users. Such companies use HCI techniques to develop software products to make them usable. Since the product is finally consumed by the end-user, following HCI methods is crucial as the product’s sales depend on its usability.
5. Useful for untrained communities
Today, user manuals for general computer systems are a rarity. Very few advanced and complex computing systems provide user manuals. In general, users expect the systems to be user-friendly and enable them to access the system within a few minutes of interacting with it. Here, HCI is an effective tool that designers can use to design easy-to-use interfaces. HCI principles also ensure that the systems have obvious interfaces and do not require special training to be used. Hence, HCI makes computing systems suitable for an untrained community.
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Technological development has brought to light several tools, gadgets, and devices such as wearable systems, voice assistants, health trackers, and smart TVs that have advanced human-computer interaction technology.
Let’s look at some prominent examples of HCI that have accelerated its evolution.
1. IoT technology
IoT devices and applications have significantly impacted our daily lives. According to a May 2022 report by IoT Analytics, global IoT endpoints are expected to reach 14.4 billion in 2022 and grow to 27 billion (approx.) by 2025. As users interact with such devices, they tend to collect their data, which helps understand different user interaction patterns. IoT companies can make critical business decisions that can eventually drive their future revenues and profits.
A recent development in the field of HCI introduced the concept of ‘pre-touch sensing’ through pre-touch phones. This means the phone can detect how the user holds the phone or which finger approaches the screen first for operation. Upon detecting the user’s hand movements, the device immediately predicts the user’s intentions and performs the task before the user gives any instructions.
Another HCI-related development is that of ‘Paper ID’. The paper acts as a touchscreen, senses the environment, detects gestures, and connects to other IoT devices. Fundamentally, it digitizes the paper and executes tasks based on gestures by focusing on man-machine interaction variables.
2. Eye-tracking technology
Eye-tracking is about detecting where a person is looking based on the gaze point. Eye-tracking devices use cameras to capture the user’s gaze along with some embedded light sources for clarity. Moreover, these devices use machine learning algorithms and image processing capabilities for accurate gaze detection.
Businesses can use such eye-tracking systems to monitor their personnel’s visual attention. It can help companies manage distractions that tend to trouble their employees, enhancing their focus on the task. In this manner, eye-tracking technology, along with HCI-enabled interactions, can help industries monitor the daily operations of their employees or workers.
Other applications include ‘driver monitoring systems’ that ensure road security. Moreover, in the future, HCI-enabled eye-tracking systems may allow users to scroll through a computer screen just by rolling their eyeballs.
3. Speech recognition technology
Speech recognition technology interprets human language, derives meaning from it, and performs the task for the user. Recently, this technology has gained significant popularity with the emergence of chatbots and virtual assistants.
For example, products such as Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri employ speech recognition to enable user interaction with their devices, cars, etc. The combination of HCI and speech recognition further fine-tune man-machine interactions that allow the devices to interpret and respond to users’ commands and questions with maximum accuracy. It has various applications, such as transcribing conference calls, training sessions, and interviews.
4. AR/VR technology
AR and VR are immersive technologies that allow humans to interact with the digital world and increase the productivity of their daily tasks. For example, smart glasses enable hands-free and seamless user interaction with computing systems. Consider an example of a chef who intends to learn a new recipe. With smart glass technology, the chef can learn and prepare the target dish simultaneously.
Moreover, the technology also reduces system downtime significantly. This implies that as smart AR/VR glasses such as ‘Oculus Quest 2’ are supported by apps, the faults or problems in the system can be resolved by maintenance teams in real-time. This enhances user experience in a minimum time span. Also, the glasses can detect the user’s response to the interface and further optimize the interaction based on the user’s personality, needs, and preferences.
Thus, AR/VR technology with the blend of HCI ensures that the task is accomplished with minimal errors and also achieves greater accuracy and quality. Currently, HCI research is targeting other fields of study, such as brain-computer interfaces and sentiment analysis, to boost the user’s AR/VR experience.
A recent development in this regard has been enabled via ‘Dexta Haptic Gloves.’ These VR gloves can sense and process touch parameters such as surface hardness, softness, etc. These gloves can memorize a user’s finger movements by locking and unlocking the finger joints as they interact in the VR environment. Later, the gloves can replicate the recorded data of feelings across various degrees in real life.
5. Cloud computing
Today, companies across different fields are embracing remote task forces. According to a ‘Breaking Barriers 2020’ survey by Fuze (An 8×8 Company), around 83% of employees feel more productive working remotely. Considering the current trend, conventional workplaces will witness a massive rejig and transform entirely in a couple of decades. Thanks to cloud computing and human-computer interaction, such flexible offices have become a reality.
Moreover, an employee can access data on the cloud from any physical location by exploiting cloud-based SaaS services. Such virtual settings streamline workflows and support seamless collaboration with remote teams across industry verticals without impacting productivity. Thus, with time, the idea of traditional offices will cease to exist, mainly because of SaaS and HCI.
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The principal objective of HCI is to develop functional systems that are usable, safe, and efficient for end-users. The developer community can achieve this goal by fulfilling the following criteria:
- Have sound knowledge of how users use computing systems
- Design methods, techniques, and tools that allow users to access systems based on their needs
- Adjust, test, refine, validate, and ensure that users achieve effective communication or interaction with the systems
- Always give priority to end-users and lay the robust foundation of HCI
To realize the above points, developers must focus on two relevant areas: usability and user experience. Let’s look at each category in detail:
Usability is key to HCI as it ensures that users of all types can quickly learn and use computing systems. A practical and usable HCI system has the following characteristics:
- How to use it: This should be easy to learn and remember for new and infrequent users to learn and remember. For example, operating systems with a user-friendly interface are easier to understand than DOS operating systems that use a command-line interface.
- Safe: A safe system safeguards users from undesirable and dangerous situations. This may refer to users making mistakes and errors while using the system that may lead to severe consequences. Users can resolve this through HCI practices. For example, systems can be designed to prevent users from activating specific keys or buttons accidentally. Another example could be to provide recovery plans once the user commits mistakes. This may give users the confidence to explore the system or interface further.
- Efficient: An efficient system defines how good the system is and whether it accomplishes the tasks that it is supposed to. Moreover, it illustrates how the system provides the necessary support to users to complete their tasks.
- Effective: A practical system provides high-quality performance. It describes whether the system can achieve the desired goals.
- Utility: Utility refers to the various functionalities and tools provided by the system to complete the intended task. For example, a sound utility system offers an integrated development environment (IDE) that provides intermittent help to programmers or users through suggestions.
- Enjoyable: Users find the computing system enjoyable to use when the interface is less complex to interpret and understand.
2. User experience
User experience is a subjective trait that focuses on how users feel about the computing system when interacting with it. Here, user feelings are studied individually so that developers and support teams can target particular users to evoke positive feelings while using the system.
HCI systems classify user interaction patterns into the following categories and further refine the system based on the detected pattern:
- Desirable traits – satisfying, enjoyable, motivating, or surprising
- Undesirable traits – Frustrating, unpleasant, or annoying
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Cleverly designed computer interfaces motivate users to use digital devices in this modern technological age. HCI enables a two-way dialog between man and machine. Such effective communication makes users believe they are interacting with human personas and not any complex computing system. Hence, it is crucial to build a strong foundation of HCI that can impact future applications such as personalized marketing, eldercare, and even psychological trauma recovery.
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