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You study Human-Computer Interaction? So you make Terminators?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten this reaction when I meet someone for the first time and they ask me—an HCI Ph.D. candidate—what I do. Typically the reactions range from “Oh human-computer interaction? What about it? There’s too much of it?”—usually signaling to me a pessimist who thinks cellphones scramble brains— to “haha! so you’re gonna be fine when the robots rise against us!” Honestly, I don’t remember how I responded to that one.

I wanted to take the opportunity to break down what HCI means in my own humble opinions.

The field of HCI is already established, and I am not setting out to rename it in this blog post. Human-computer interaction. For me, it is more like human-technology interaction.

Let me break this down piece by piece. Starting with the human part:

Let me break this down piece by piece. Starting with the human part:

Human: The wonderful creature reading this post who has their own abilities and preferences on how to interact with a technology.

So what is a technology?

Technology: An artifact that augments its users’ abilities to achieve their goals.

What about interaction? What does that mean?

This one is more complicated. I view an interaction between a human and a technology to be that of three components: 1. Human action 2. Technology function 3. Feedback


Examples of the different types of input actions.
Examples of the different types of input actions.

Examples of the different types of feedback representations.
Examples of the different types of feedback representations.

Ok, that’s all great, but why is the picture for this post about HCI an axe??


The axe! A great piece of technology.
The axe! A great piece of technology.

Well, the axe is a great piece of technology. I—a human being—need to cut a hunk of a tree into small pieces to fit in my fireplace. I pick up an axe to augment my ability to break down the wood. I hit the tree with the axe, performing the function of cutting. A small piece of wood falls to the ground as a result — the function has been executed successfully. The same thing applies to more advanced and complicated pieces of technology like the devices we have in our backpacks, in our pockets, and on our wrists. To interact with a device we perform an input action (e.g., press a key, do a gesture, say a voice command); in turn, the device will perform a function based on that command and—IF it is designed properly—it will provide us with feedback. My aim as an HCI designer is to study what actions we—as technology creators—should encode our technology to accept to perform which functions and how to display useful feedback to the user that best suits their preferences and abilities. I want to leave you with is this: As axe creators we have an ethical obligation to make sure that the axes we put out into the world for people to use to build fires among a million other things, are as safe as possible and will not cause harm. Bad agents (axe-murderers) will always exist, and will always try their best to use whatever axe they get their hands on to do harm. We need to always think about the implications of what we put out into the world and actually NOT end up making terminators.

#technology #design #designthinking #HCI #tech #experiencedesign #servicedesign #productdesign

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