Nowadays, most of us have a powerful computer in our pockets and interact with a myriad of screens and devices every day. Some of our devices are tiny, like smartwatches, and some don’t even have screens, like smart speakers for voice assistants. Meanwhile, there have been incredible advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and just as all of this technology has evolved, so has our relationship with them. Yes, the interaction between humans and computers is ever-changing. 

The discipline of human-computer interaction (HCI) emerged during the early 1980s, as more and more of us got a personal computer. Since then, the study of human-computer interaction has grown leaps and bounds and the body of knowledge on how to make it better has expanded too. Here you will find the latest research and information on projects that improve HCI and make especially creative tasks easier, more fun, and more accessible to a wider audience. First, let’s define HCI, discover how it relates to UX, and discuss what components it’s made up of. 

What is human-computer interaction?

Human-computer interaction is a multidisciplinary study that focuses on the interaction between people and computers as well as the design of the computer interface. 

Factors to take into account include the user capabilities and cognitive processes, personality, experience, motivation, and emotions.

Originally all about computers, the explosion of mobile and diversifying technology (e.g. voice-first experiences) meant that this term now covers all kinds of information technology design and sits at the intersection of computer science, human factors engineering, cognitive science, and psychology. HCI also overlaps with user interface design, user-centered design, and user experience design. In fact, it can be seen as preceding all these disciplines but tends to be more academic. Thus, UX designers can draw on HCI research and use it to improve and enhance the experiences they work on. 

Components of a human-computer interaction

Human-computer interaction consists of four main components. Let’s have a quick look at each one of them:

The user

The ‘user’ can encompass an individual or a group of users working together. HCI analyzes how they behave, how they interact with technology, and what their needs and goals are. Factors to take into account include their capabilities and cognitive processes, personality, experience, motivation, and emotions.

Image by Insung Yoon

The goal or task

When a user interacts with a computer, they usually have a goal. Especially on mobile, you can find goal-oriented experiences that help users plan their activity (they set goals and complete tasks to reach their goal). Factors to take into account include how complex or easy it is for the user to carry out a task and the skills required. In an e-commerce environment, a task could be to add an item to the shopping cart and to purchase it. 

The medium or interface

Another vital component of human-computer interaction is the medium, the device or the interface. This could be a personal computer, a smartphone, or a voice-controlled virtual assistant. Factors to take into account include the input and output of the device, the layout, the navigation, as well as colors, icons, and other graphics.

Image by Luca Bravo

The context

The context describes the actual conditions under which the computer system is used. To determine how users interact in normal day-to-day situations, it’s important to carry out user testing, as trying to access a website on mobile, with the sun shining onto the screen, is significantly different from using it in the office on a high-speed network. Context-aware systems can even allow the app to modify its behavior to better interact with the user. 

HCI is crucial to advance technology

Human-computer interaction studies the user, their goal and task, the medium and the interface, as well as the context in which the interaction takes place. As technology develops and affects every part of our lives (from wearables to internet-connected devices at home), it’s crucial to continue to explore and improve the study of HCI. 

Research from companies like Adobe, Microsoft, and Facebook regularly translates into technological innovations that help create intuitive and usable interfaces for all kinds of industries. User interfaces will continue to adapt, and voice is just the start.

We’re at the cusp of exciting advancements in VR, AR, AI, and machine learning. The link between humans and computers is getting even stronger and will cover all of our senses beyond vision, hearing, and touch.

We live in an age where science fiction is becoming reality and our relationship with technology is changing so much that it’s becoming increasingly likely we will be able to artificially create characteristics which we thought were distinctly human.