HCI expands to Human-Computer Interaction. Since the definition of a ‘computer’ is sufficiently blurry nowadays – the cellphone in your hand is one for example – it’s more a study of how we interact with machines, and what can be done to make that interaction simpler and more pleasant.
My first exposure to the term HCI came about a couple of years ago when I was thinking about what to do after my undergraduate life. I am a reasonably capable programmer, but I wanted to somehow commingle my interest in writing and web design with my training as an engineer (admittedly, it’s not much – four years of a Bachelor out here doesn’t count for much. The programming skills are very much a product of earlier times). So I did a Google search and somehow ended up with HCI. What I liked most was how interdisciplinary it was – everything from cognitive science to classical design and of course, computer science. I wanted to learn this because I thought it was a genuine fit: I have a good interest in every one of those topics. Of course, time will tell, but since I have a rigorous policy of zero-self-regret, I expect things would turn out good.
Another tangent is my fascination with products designed by Apple. So yes, I was the first amongst my circle of friends to own a Mac. Everywhere I went, I’ve spread the word and have seen lots of people responding to good design. But what makes good design? There is of course, Steve Job’s quote, but that’s barely a teaser. And perhaps not even the whole picture. HCI, I hope will let me learn a lot more about this. Why people respond to aesthetically pleasing well-designed applications that work with a minimum of fuss. Nowadays, I can’t sit at a Windows PC without feeling pangs of withdrawal every other minute, my stock new EeePC remains unused because Linux just doesn’t work well enough.
A third part of the equation is how forgetful and clumsy I am, and this seems to escalate around devices which do not resemble a computer. ATM machine? I’m bound to forget my card. Photocopy machine? I will forget the piece of paper inside its internals. Bikes? I’ll forget to turn on the ignition and kick-start a dead engine away to glory. However, there was this wonderful book by Don Norman that changed how I think about myself – most often, it is not my fault (or, our fault), but a problem with how things are designed – they may look good, but they fail to take into account our foibles or the way humans are wired. I probably did subscribe to Norman because it allowed me to excuse how forgetful I am (nowadays when I forget an ATM card, I blame the machine), but there is indeed a good amount of research going on into what can be done to make machines which reduce human error. So ATM machines could beep after dispatching money to alert the user that his card is still in there, photocopy machines could blink yellow to notify the user that he’s forgotten the source book or paper, and bikes could make a distinctive sound when kick-started without the ignition being turned on. Easy ways to reduce our error and frustration.
(As an aside, what I love about Apple computers is just this quality – it makes me look less stupid. Principle of Least Surprise, consistent design, allowing a user to make an error and still recover with grace …)
I’m an engineer by training and it’s in my nature to quantify things, extract scenarios and then try to explain them. In HCI, since humans are involved, the science is in-exact – much in the vein of psychology (which for some is pseudo-science) – and this presents an interesting challenge. Often, people behave in a counter-intuitive fashion, and studying these behavior and quantifying them needs an interdisciplinary bent. I think that’s what I want out of an HCI course – enough of a background in everything important so I’ll be able to think intelligently about the sort of problems I described above.
I’m joining UCLIC for an MSc. HCI this September. We’ll see what comes of that!
Okay, now a quick question: does the picture above irritate your eyes?