A Reflection on Human Computer Interaction

People around the world have spent their entire careers investigating how individuals interact with man made machines. Whether those machines are mechanical like cars, industrial like buildings, or electronic like cell phones, it makes no difference. So long as man builds/creates devices from the elements of his surroundings, there is a method in which those devices are used. When it comes to understanding how a person interacts with those devices the word "design" is always present. And specifically in understanding how a man interacts with computers, that is the study of "HCI", Human Computer Interaction; to which "design" is an ongoing hard fought battle on some very heavy fronts.

HCI has been a growing field since the 80's. I'm by no means an expert on the subject in so much as having formally studied its history, but it is a topic in which I'm not only intrigued, but find myself researching due to the activities of my profession. Fortunately for me, my job intersects some of my passions so I am able to invest in some of those passions daily. HCI has found its way into my heart as something that drives me daily to attack problems from a new perspective and try to consider options outside of the norm.

Within the realm of Human Computer Interaction there are two standard tracts a person could pursue. A hardware track and a software track. And more often than not, the two, at some point, intersect. The study of the more physical hardware track would manifest itself in something like how a person uses the features of their car. Where should the buttons for the automatic windows go? Should the windows be automatic? Where should the radio be placed? Should the steering wheel have additional functions other than steering the car? These questions are related to the physical more than the abstract; whereas the software track of HCI seems to be a bit more intangible.

Let's consider the same car analogy for a moment. But in this car, we've gone passed thinking about automatic windows and radio buttons and have moved on to the navigation system. A "NAVI" (as it is so often referred to) is the perfect example of software based human computer interaction. In this instance the person (user) is presented with a series of screens (user interfaces) that allow that person to interact with the navigation system. Those series of screens are designed by someone who has thought about how the person using that navigation system needs to interact with the system in order to gain the information they need to.... navigate. I have a NAVI in my '04 Acura TL. I've used the interface a number of times. As a matter of fact, my first encounter with the device was the road trip I took from Marietta, GA back to Columbia, MO when I first purchased the car. A strong, well designed user interface should have allowed me to quickly learn how to use the system by finding the necessary features for the task I wanted to complete, easily execute those tasks, and also be something aesthetically pleasing to view while performing those tasks. In the design world we classify those three things as: Findability, Usability, and Desirability. Unfortunately in my '04 TL, the NAVI was a bit lacking in all three. Let me break down these three categories. 

Findability is a design principal that deals with how quickly a user can find and execute the function they need regarding the task they have set out to complete. Whereas Usability is the design component that commands how simple the process is for the user to execute. Often times it is hard to separate these two principals but this example may help. For some software it is a predetermined principal that training is necessary for the user to know how to execute all the features in the application. But after the training, that user may find the features to be extremely simple and “user friendly” to complete those tasks. The fact that the training is a foregone conclusion is an example of poor findability. But since the tool is easy to use once the functions have been found is an example of quality usability. In the world of web application development a marriage of these two concepts is vital because the company that develops tools that require the smallest service footprint stands to gain the greatest profit margin. Fewer help calls mean fewer employees to field those calls. 

Desirability is the design principal that says the application’s user interface needs to be visually appealing. People should want to look at the application and “desire” to come back because that look and ascetic qualities of the tool draw them back again and again. Oftentimes applications look amazing but the features are neither findable nor usable. What is fascinating in these cases is people still choose to use the tool. In some ways it is similar to a fine automobile. The new Ferrari California is visually a work of art, but as with all Ferrari’s the maintenance over time is a nightmare. That doesn’t stop people from paying a price tag larger than my house. So desirability, just like findability and usability is an equal when it comes to the design elements of Human Computer Interaction. Anyone of these three components can stand on its own in prowess but the real power is derived from the synergy brought by all three.

That synergy is what I’m passionate about. How to make an application where users can find the tools they need to execute a task without needing help; using those tools is second nature, and all the while enjoying the experience because the tool they are using is visually stimulating and demands their attention just because of its ascetic appeal. How do we get there? It is a daily battle between application developers, visual designers, and usability experts. But in the end all battles are resolved through “usability testing”. Design it, build it, and get somebody to use it. Listen to them and make adjustments. The greater the diversity of the users testing, the greater the chance you’ll succeed in building a tool for the masses. That’s where I live. In the battles for design but seeing the impact those battles have when the users take the tools to task.