Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is the "heart of the matter" here on the Internet and also with whatever you are trying to do with a computer (or technology, including smart phones and tablet computers) ... whether you realize it or not. Each of us has adapted, over time, to computers being a part of our daily lives. How we work with computers and technology is really what Human-Computer Interaction is all about. We have learned to how to use as well as "live with" technology. The Internet has seduced us and, in the process, wrapped itself tightly around our consciousness. We now think in terms of the Internet - to find information, to play games, to buy things, to connect with others, and to "get lost" when it seems there is nothing else to do. And, that's really what this location "on the grid" is all about ...
So let's look closer at just what Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is ...
Any time you interact with technology, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) comes into play. This is for computers and any kind of technology device. Even when you get into a rental car and try to figure out how to work the radio, electric windows or anything else, that's Human-Computer Interaction.
HCI in the beginning ...
The dawn of the personal computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the beginning of rapidly evolving technology getting a stranglehold on everyday life.The mechanical world of typewriters, dedicated word processors, and adding machines with cranks was quickly left in the wake of all things microchips and on-screen menus.
The good news: you could do more ... the bad news: the end result was a complex and often confusing grid of computer chip based equipment and devices.
The study (and "end result" being YOU and me actually working in this microchip realm) of Human-Computer Interaction took center stage in the mid 90s as the World Wide Web, email (known only as "electronic email up to that point), and Windows95 exploded on to the scene and into our lives.
Over the years since,computers and programs have become easier to use (in many cases, the complexities associated with making things "easier to use" actually made the learning curve much steeper and LONGER). Using computers and programs has become more of a "point & click" affair. Minimal mouse clicks are only part of the picture to improve our computer experiences. Cleaner, less cluttered "work spaces" on our computing "desk tops" are the heart of Human-Computer Interaction, because that's what helps us better focus on the tasks that need to be done ... as well as figuring out how to accomplish those tasks using a computer. The goal for successful Human-Computer Interaction is to allow each of us to do whatever it is we need to do without worrying about (or even thinking about) how to "make things work." The more intuitive things are with computers and technology, the closer we get to Human-Computer Interaction working in our favor ... and not against us (as was the case in the early days of computing).
Human-Computer Interaction officially became a study and science all at once at the Xerox Park Research Project in the late 1970s. The people initialy involved didn't really know what HCI was, but their primary focus was to see what they could do with emerging technology to make things easier for the user. The Park Research Project even had a Windows-like desktop on the computer screen complete with a file cabinet icon (crude by today's standards, but, just the same, you could tell it was a file cabinet) for the area where you stored files. There were plenty of other recognizable icons, too. However, before we go any further, it is important to point out that while Xerox was involved in such important pioneering efforts with computers and technology, it was Xerox who "gave up" the mouse technology to the public domain because they didn't see "any significant use" developing from it. Thus the mouse technology was left "wide open" for whomever wanted to use it ... as a side note, Microsoft in the early 1980s saw great potential for the mouse ... and we all know what happened from there!
Xerox and the Park Research Project made amazing advances with technology and computer interfaces, but Xerox didn't really pursue much of it. Apple Computers and Microsoft "ran with it" when it comes to computer interfaces and making things "easier" for the end user (that would be you and me).
So just what is HCI?
Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is all about the "space" that is created when you work with technology. The best way to explain this kind of space that has to do with concentration is when you watch television or a movie. The room and everything in it is still all around you, but while you are "tuned in" to the TV or a movie, you aren't really aware of anything else. HCI has to do with that space created when you are concentrating on working with a computer (or any type of technology). If you watch someone playing a computer game, that monosyllabic look on the person's face is a telltale sign of the HCI space that completely surrounds a person.
Once you become "submerged" in whatever it is you are doing on a computer, you are in the realm of HCI ... and whether or not it turns out to be a good experience or bad experience (or somewhere in between) depends on how successful you are at figuring things out - in other words, interacting with the computer - the heart of Human-Computer Interaction.
Think about all of those flashing "12:00" digits on VCRs when they became a part of our lives in the 1980s. People quickly figured out how to press the red record button on the VCRs to record programs "on the fly." But it was a much different story when it came to programming the VCRs and setting channels. Now a-days with the simplicity of menus for our DVD players, that is a perfect example of how HCI has led to use being able to better control our technology devices.
Despite all of the advances in HCI, many people still can't reset their digital watches or turn on/off alarms. When you look closely at HCI, it all comes back to the steps in takes to accomplish tasks and how easy and/or intuitive they are. That leads us directly to the menu interface and that is where many people still "crash and burn." The real issue when it comes to menu interfaces is that someone is programming those interfaces (i.e., commands as well as the look and feel). More and more you are seeing interfaces that even the first time you see them, you feel like you know how to use them. Those are excellent examples of good HCI.
People aren't interested in bells & whistles. They just want to use technology devices to do whatever it is they want to do. With most cell phones, most people use a very small percentage of those bells and whistles. In fact, there are a significant number of people who can't even program phone numbers into their cell phones ... we have a long way to go when it comes to HCI ... and every time you find yourself frustrated trying to figure out how to use a program or a device, you are once again experiencing HCI gone BAD!
It's all about Affordance
Affordance is the essence of HCI. Simply put, affordance is the know-how and skill set that you bring to any new situation involved technology. Here's an example of affordance: You rent a car. Even though the car is a model you have never driven, when you get inside the car, you already know how to press the button to roll down the electric window. However, the affordance you "bring to the table" in such a situation isn't going to do you too much good if, instead of pressing down on the button, you need to pull up on the button to make the window work. You quickly figure that out, but this is where standardization comes into play and standardization is a key factor in HCI. Here's another example: There's a very good reason most rental car companies do not offer cars with manual transmissions. Anyone who has a license has the skill necessary to drive a car with an automatic transmission. Your driving skills would do you no good if you couldn't use a clutch or didn't know how to shift gears. The same is true in terms of program interfaces ... that's why you see similarities in where the menu choices are and how they work. Even if you have never used the program before, if the menu structure is familiar, then you are a step ahead in the game of HCI.
But therein lies the connundrum for HCI. There is no one specific standard way to create products or programs or interfaces. The goal that HCI achieves is to create something the user can work with successfully. A person must be able to work within an interface (or space) intuitively, tied to affordance (what she or he brings to the situation in terms of past experience and knowledge). Affordance is something we all keep "adding to" all the time.
All of us have interacted with technology and computer programs in positive and negative ways. A good experience, where you can accomplish what needs to be done with minimal heartache, isn't something that can be listed in "ten easy steps" for product design. The evolving study of HCI is the major force leading to better working experiences in those "spaces" we all work in - at home and at work.
HCI on the Internet
The Internet is riddled with great and BAD examples of HCI. When you visit a web site where it is easy to find your way around, and seemingly effortless to accomplish tasks, you are experiencing a good example of HCI. The United States Postal Service (http://www.usps.com) is one of the single best models for HCI. When you visit that web site, you'll quickly discover that everything seems to be in the right place ... and all of the menus and pages are highly intuitive.
There is no magic answer for HCI ... especially when it comes to the Internet. The web sites "out there" span the range from really, really good to just dreadful. You tend to return to the web sites that "work well" and provide what you need ... the rest just remain "out there!"
YOU can play a very important role in HCI, because all of this - EVERYTHING on the Internet is there for YOU ... that is, each one of us traversing all of the criss-crossing grids ... and here is how YOU can make a difference. When you find good programs or good web sites or installations of devices that are quite good (the gauge here is that they don't make you feel exasperated), you should let the company know about your positive experience - what you liked and what you feel could be improved. And, the same goes for bad when you find something you don't like or can't figure out (you know, those points where you just guess what to do next by eliminating certain menu options before you click on one that you hope takes you where you want to go) ... let the companies know about all of this. Sure, there will be cases, no doubt, where your input is ignored by certain companies ... but, you're going to be pleasantly surprised by the amount of responses you get from companies who appreciate your input. And, if you get asked to do an online survey after visiting a web site or using a product or online service, take the time to FILL IT OUT ... YOU can make a difference in what happens with HCI ... it's all here for you, so do what you can to improve this "space!"
Bil. Alvernaz is certified in HCI ... and you should let him know what you think of this web site. And, if you have questions about HCI, he will be happy to answer them for you. Just click on the email address you see listed below to contact Bil. ... he is also available to talk about HCI, too, as well as evaluate products, programs, and web sites to see how they stack up on the HCI Index.
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