Illustration by Nayane de Souza Hablitzel

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.

Human computer interaction examples include:

  • Interaction with a mobile app
  • Browsing a website from your desktop computer
  • Using internet of things (IoT) devices

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. 

Why is HCI important?

As a discipline, HCI focuses on creating a ‘natural’ dialog between the user and the machine. In such dialog, the interaction with a machine does not require a lot of cognitive effort from the user. When we put a lot of effort into designing good human computer interface, we help our users to use machines to solve their problems. Lack of attention to human computer interaction, on the other hand, almost always results in creating bad user interfaces. Bad HCI means bad usability, and it increases chances for product failure.

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. In the modern, highly competitive market, it’s vital to create the best possible experience for users. Not surprisingly, user centered design (a process in which designers focus on users and their needs in each step of the design process) is paramount in the design process. Product teams that practice user centered design always involve users in the design process from the very beginning and key design decisions are evaluated based on how they work for users. Product teams also try to find a balance between user needs and business needs.

A user is a person who interacts with a digital system using a human computer interface.
A user is a person who interacts with a digital system using a human computer interface. Image by Insung Yoon

The goal or task

When a user interacts with a computer, they usually have a goal – usually, it’s a task that users want to accomplish. A digital product is simply a tool that allows users to accomplish this task effectively. For example, in an e-commerce environment, a task could be to add an item to the shopping cart and to purchase it. 

Here are a few factors that you need to take into account when thinking about goal-driven experience:

  • How complex or easy it is for the user to carry out a task 
  • The skills required for interaction with a product
  • The time required to complete the operation.

The medium or interface

When designers create graphical user interfaces, it’s essential to focus on creating a proper hierarchy in design (both hierarchy of content, also known as information architecture and visual hierarchy on individual screens that users will interact with). Proper hierarchy makes it easier for users to navigate and consume content. A vital component of human-computer interaction is the medium, the device or the interface. 

For example, if you design a graphic user interface you need to take the following factors into account—the size of display, resolution, primary way of interaction (click or touch). You need to adjust the hierarchy according to these parameters to create better user experience. For example, when users visit your website from their mobile devices, you might want to show only the most critical information and size the text for comfortable interaction by making it easier to read text on small screens.

Good human computer interface is useful, usable, and delightful. Image by Luca Bravo

The context

Human computer interface implies communication between a human user and a computer system. And interactions play an essential part in this communication. Not only the actual tasks that users will perform with devices impact human computer interaction, but also the context in which such actions happen is important. The context describes the actual conditions under which the computer system is used. For example, when you design a mobile app, you need to consider how the visual design will look both in dim lighting and on sun glare, whether the app works fine during a poor internet connection. These are just two of many aspects that can have an impact on user experience.

Good interaction design always results from rigorous user testing and constant refinement of individual design details, especially details that can be affected by the context of use.  That is why the human computer interface should always be tested with real users who represent the target audience.

HCI is crucial to advance technology

Human-computer interaction studies the user, their goal and task, the medium and the human computer 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.


Well-designed user interfaces are something that allow people to make the most of the computational power of modern digital devices. HCI enables designers to create a clear dialog between human and machine. In such dialogs, users don’t feel like they interact with complex systems, but rather feel like they interact with other personas. That’s why when it comes to emerging technologies, it’s vital to pay special attention to the foundations of HCI.