Human Computer Interaction

Here's a thought: Systems generally include human beings as well as technology. If you design the system by only optimizing the technology part, you may get an OVERALL system that is a total disaster.

That's why people invented the field of "Human Computer Interaction" (HCI)-- which looks at how to design better computer-human systems by looking at both what we know about technology and what we know about people.

One thing we know about people -- it's hard to predict precisely what they will do. You can make better predictions if you look at what has been learned in psychology over the last hundred years, but your best bet is to try out the system with the real users in the real situation and be prepared to change things based on that feedback. If you do that in conjunction with an HCI specialist, you will get a much better system. In The Trouble With Computers, Tom Landauer documents that absent such a process, you are likely to get a very small improvement in productivity (perhaps 1%/year). When people followed the recommended procedure, productivity improvements averaged over 30%/annum.

Exercise left to the student: calculate the difference between a 30%/annum improvement and a 1%/annum improvement compounded over 10 years. You can find further information about Dr. Landauer's book in the linked bibliography below.

This field of HCI -- or "Human Computer Interaction" is one of the main things I've been involved with over the last thirty years.

You could get some idea of how the field has progressed by comparing, Thomas, J.C. and Schneider, M. edited volume based on the first major conference on HCI (Human factors in computer systems, Norwood, N.J.:Ablex, 1984) and a more recent volume edited by Jakob Nielsen, (Advances in human-computer interaction, Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1995).

For a discussion of why laboratory studies are often necessary but not sufficient to determine usability in the real world, see Thomas, J.C. and Kellogg, W.A., Minimizing ecological gaps in interface design, IEEE Software, January, 1989.

An alternative that I've come to favor is to work with real users in their real environment as much as possible. For a further discussion of iterative development in the field, see

The next CHI conference will be in the spring in Portland, Oregon. I was on the technical program committee and my wife was papers co-chair. For more information, see and to see stories about the origins of CHI and past CHI's see

See the extensive bibliography compiled by Gary Perlman at

Home Page for relevant On-line journals, upcoming conferences and people involved in Human Computer Interaction (at

At the recent CHI '98 conference, I chaired a session on "CAPTology" -- Computers As Persuasive Technology (coined by B. J. Fogg formerly of Stanford and now at SUN). As computer networks increase in computational power, storage, and bandwidth, the CONTENT becomes more important and can influence people in various ways.

At CHI 99 (in Pittsburg), along with Dr. James L. Fozard, I co-chaired the Development Consortium, which focussed on using techno-gerontology. Issues include: how to make computing more accessible to older people; how technology can help older people; and how technology can help spread the wisdom of older people to the rest of the population. More can be found at:

At CHI 2000 (in Den Hague) I participated in a two-day workshop on HCI Pattern Languages. This year (2001), I was recently technical co-chair of a new SIGCHI conference on Universal Usability focusing on issues of overcoming all barriers to access to computing. See: ACM's recent Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference was a great success.

My wife and I attended the opening of a new Institute for Interaction Design in Ivrea, Italy. The director, Gillian Crampton-Smith had amazing students at the Royal College of Art and we expect to see more amazing ideas developed at the new Institute.

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Last modified: Dec. 13, 2004