11 min read

What Is Human-Computer Interaction?

Human-computer interaction, sometimes simply called HCI, is an area of study that includes multiple disciplinary fields.

It focuses on the design of computer technology and the way that humans interact with and use that technology.

 In the beginning, human-computer interaction only focused on computers. However, as the years have passed, it’s grown to cover many different aspects of information technology design.

In this article, we’ll review what you should know about human-computer interaction and how it relates to mobile app development and design.

Table of Contents

  1. A Brief History of HCI
  2. Early Days
  3. What Disciplines Are Involved in HCI?
  4. Creating a Strong Connection Between Human and Computer
  5. Growing Technology Demanded Change in Focus
  6. Why Does Human-Computer Interaction Matter?
  7. Bad Interactions Mean Major Issues
  8. How Does HCI Tie Into Mobile App Development and Design?
  9. The User
  10. The Goal
  11. The Interface for Interaction
  12. Best Practices for Human-Computer Interaction
  13. Ensure Legibility
  14. Use Unique Elements
  15. Use Menus and Other Visual Information
  16. Keep Things Simple

Chapter #1: A Brief History of HCI

While you might think that human-computer interaction is something brand new, it actually originated in the 1980s with the rise of personal computers.

It was this era that first brought us those old classics like the old-school Apple Macintosh, the Commodore 64, and the IBM PC 5150.

While they were still somewhat rare, they were starting to become more common in the workplace and homes. 

As technology grew and evolved, even more technological devices and gadgets made their way into the world.

Computers were starting to become something used by the masses.

1.1 Early Days of Design

In the first days of product development, the design was more about aesthetics than function. The designers played less of a role than they do today.

Now, the design is one of the key factors of success for hardware and software, such as mobile apps, alike. 

Without a quality design and good user interaction, the end-users are surely going to complain about the product.

Photo Credit: mobileappdaily.com

As computers and software become more common, it quickly became apparent that there needed to be a good way for people to interact with them. 

The human-computer interaction needed to be efficient and easy, especially since there were so many new users.

Chapter #2: What Disciplines Are Involved in HCI?

As mentioned, human-computer interaction is a multidisciplinary field.

It’s made up of cognitive science, computer science, human psychology, and human factors engineering. 

Each of these fields brings important insight and skills into the design process.

Not only do the apps or machines need to work from a basic functioning standpoint, but they have to be easily usable by humans. 

This can be tough given the fact that humans are all different.

Some may not be as suited to quickly grasping various types of technological tools or programs

And so, when discussing HCI, it’s important to consider all of the various disciplines and to involve them in the process of creation.

2.1 Creating a Strong Connection Between Human and Computer

The field of human-computer interaction should resemble the same type of open-ended dialogue that would happen between humans.

In the beginning, those working in the field worked toward improving the usability of desktop computers. 

They tried to make computers as easy to learn and use as possible.

2.2 Growing Technology Demanded Change in Focus

However, as technology grew, this field moved away from focusing solely on desktop computers. It expanded to include laptop computers, the use of the Internet, smartphones, and apps on the phone, fully embracing the mobile world.

HCI has expanded beyond the initial focus on generic user behavior and today includes a much wider range of potential human experiences. 

This includes improving interactions for the elderly, for physically and cognitively impaired individuals, and more.

Photo Credit: educative.io

It’s moved past desktop applications to include elements like:

And these are just some of the changes.

You can be sure that every element on your phone, from the hardware to each of the apps you’ve installed, has undergone some human-computer interaction testing.

Chapter #3: Why Does Human-Computer Interaction Matter?

Remember, the goal is always to create a quality experience for the user, but this only happens when the design has been thoroughly tested.

People interact with computers in countless ways, so having a good interaction means that it must be able to work for multiple types of people.

3.1 Bad Interactions Mean Major Issues

When the human-computer interaction is poorly designed, it can cause a whole host of problems. 

Those problems could be minor inconveniences to major catastrophes.

Because HCI is so important, it makes sense to put a lot of effort into stronger, better designs.  

There have been some major problems that have come from poor human-computer interaction designs, like Windows 8, for example.

This design of Windows 8 suffered from the flaw of complexity.

The developers created two designs for Windows 8. One was for use with touchscreens and the other was for use with keyboard and mouse.

Having a different environment for each of the types of devices was a major problem. 

It means that each has a separate web browser, control panel, and different programs and apps running.

This meant needing to learn two different systems, which was confusing for those who were using various Microsoft devices. People were unhappy, so Microsoft eventually released Windows 10.

Chapter #4 How Does HCI Tie Into Mobile App Development and Design?

When creating an app, designers want to create the best possible user experience. 

The human-computer interaction is just as important with apps as it’s with other tools.

Given the pervasiveness of mobile apps today, many would say it’s even more important. 

Developers need to think about the various parts that go into human-computer interaction design, like the user, the goal, and the UI.

4.1 The User

Creating a good human-computer interaction can only happen when the designer keeps the end-user in mind. 

They are, after all, the reason the app is being created in the first place.

One of the ways developers do this is by creating a user persona and developing for that person. 

Photo Credit: justinmind.com

The persona encompasses a group of people, the “ideal customers” that have the same needs, goals, pains, etc.

By keeping the user in mind, it can help to make development easier and keep things on track, but it’s just one of the pieces that go into human-computer interaction design.

4.2 The Goal

Why does someone interact with the app in the first place? 

They have some sort of goal they want to accomplish.

Of course, the goal will vary substantially from one type of app to the next, but there’s always a goal in mind whether it’s a game, a banking app, an investment app, a streaming service, and so on.

Designers need to have that goal in mind at all times. They then need to find ways to reduce the complexity of using the app and reach that goal for their users.

4.3 The Interface for Interaction

Next comes the interface. This is where the interaction takes place.

This could be on a desktop computer, a smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc. As long as the device is capable of running the app, developers need to think about how it’ll be used.

The location of the buttons, the way the app displays, the layout, etc. will all matter. So will colors, icons, and graphics on the screen.

Everything needs to be done with the user in mind, which means it should all be easy to read, use and understand.

You may also want to think about accessibility for those who are disabled. How will they be able to use the app?

Chapter #5 Best Practices for Human-Computer Interaction

When trying to improve the UI for interaction between humans and computers, you’ll want to keep certain things in mind. 

Below are some of the best and simplest tips for ensuring quality HCI.

5.1 Ensure Legibility 

When someone is looking at the device or the app, as the case may be, it needs to be easy to perceive all of the various elements.

If the user has trouble distinguishing various elements of the UI and doesn’t know what they do, it’ll cause confusion. 

Every element should be legible and easy to see to help ensure better overall effectiveness.

5.2 Use Unique Elements

One of the issues that often crops up is confusion over elements in a design

If they look too similar to one another, there is a good chance they will end up being confused.

As mentioned in redundancy, we want users to equate certain actions and results with certain signals and elements on the app. 

Therefore, elements that do different things need to be unique.

Additionally, if there are any similar features, they should be removed or changed. This allows each of the different parts of the device or app to be unique.

The user should have an easy time understanding how to navigate the entire app or device.

It should feature menus and/or displays that help the user to find the information they need quickly. 

It’ll prevent someone from having to access their memory, which could be faulty.

You’ll also want to consider using more than one type of resource.

Photo Credit: justinmind.com

Often, users will have a simpler time processing information when it’s available through different resources.

This might include both visual and auditory information being provided at the same time, or visual and text, for example. 

While this may not be an option for all apps or devices, it can help if possible.

5.5 Keep Things Simple

One of the major problems that tend to crop up in the field of design for apps and devices alike is trying to be too unique. 

People want to do things differently just for the sake of creating a unique interface for interaction.

Just be warned, this can be dangerous. People have become accustomed to certain things from design, particularly for mobile apps and websites.

Photo Credit: justinmind.com

At this point, people know intuitively how to navigate most websites, as long as they are designed with an interface and interactions similar to other sites. The same is true of most apps.

Trying to incorporate well-established designs could throw users off and lead to frustration. 

Although designers might want unique elements, they need to be careful when choosing to add them.

Think of using an app like driving a car. You should be able to get in any car and know how to drive it. The steering wheel, HUD display, gear shift, pedal and brake—these should all be exactly where you would expect them to be.
Sure, automobile makers have some wiggle room to get creative with their designs, but overall, everything should be familiar to drivers, as it should be with app users.

Final Thoughts

Human-computer interaction is one of the most important elements in today’s technologically driven world.

All devices, apps, pieces of software, etc. should be run through HCI testing to ensure they will work properly for the widest possible audience.

Just as with all of the other elements of app or device creation, the interaction between the user and the device needs to be considered and tested carefully and thoroughly. 

Putting in the effort early in the stages of development will save a lot of frustration down the line.

It’s also important to keep in mind that things may not be perfect on the first outing. Take the time to get feedback on the app or device and make the necessary changes before moving forward.

Our Simple Starter package can help you take the right step forward by offering a full technical writeup of your app along with wireframes and research.

What changes in HCI have you noticed the most in mobile app development?



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