Human computer interaction, also known as HCI, is the study of the relationship between people and computers. The study, planning and design of the user interface with the computer combine the fields of psychology, computer science and design. User satisfaction and safety are important components of HCI.
Major universities often maintain HCI research centers. The goal of HCI is to make computing systems usable and useful. Developing technologies and the demands of users give the impetus for new HCI methods. HCI researchers implement concepts from psychological research as well as social and organizational processes involved in real life computer usage.
The design of computer systems aims to be useful and esthetically pleasing. Evaluation of current designs is determined through evaluation of how people, groups, industries and societal sectors use computers. Psychologists usually study small sample groups. An exception is a study by T.K. Landauer (1995), who found that in businesses, the amount of money invested in information technology tends not to correlate to increased productivity.
Long a topic of study in HCI, researchers continue to try to understand how people's cognitive, perceptual and motor components are invoked during computer work. This is called cognitive modeling. S. K. Card et. al. (1983) built a set of models that delineated the knowledge needed to use a computer application from the actual behavior that builds upon that knowledge. The model human processor is the engine, so to speak, that operates on knowledge to produce behavior. With this model, the researchers could figure out how long it takes computer users to perform tasks, which types of errors people commonly make and how long it takes them to learn new tasks. Other researchers built on this model, adding details that could measure perceptual processes and mental and physical action.
D.E. Kieras and D.E. Meyer (1997) designed EPIC (executive process interactive control), an explanation of storage and processes in HCI. They added to knowledge in the field by revealing aspects of human behavior. For example, they delved into eye-hand coordination and studied how extensively a person can use two hands independently. Along those lines, they explained how people can operate a car while using GPS to access directions and how soldiers can follow a target with military aircraft while making tactical decisions.
Cognitive modeling has been used in the design of banking applications and computer programs. However, it does not fully address the needs of HCI, as it applies to skilled users and not those who have to learn how to use a computer. Furthermore, the modeling focused on motor tasks and did not give attention to cognitive tasks such as those involved in making a spreadsheet. Cognitive modeling also fails to examine how computers are best adapted to the workplace.
Distributed cognition is another line of research in HCI. This type of research draws on sociological and anthropological studies of work situations. It takes into consideration the roles of workers within a team, cultural settings and workers' responsibilities. It gathers research from the field, using methods of ethnography.
E. Hutchins (1995) used distributed cognition in his study about how a team in a cockpit lands an aircraft. Together, they prepare their environment for landing, working as a system. According to Hutchins, the behavior of individuals cannot be understood without examination of the entire environment in which the activity takes place.
Design ideas about the work environment are also a result of distributed cognition studies. Researchers who observed workers using their office whiteboards used that information to develop electronic smart boards. Computer display results of searches are arranged in response to observations about how people use their desks to place and find pieces of paper.
HCI researchers have advanced to studying not just office workers, but those with disabilities, as well as the very young and the aging populations. Children, who have less of a knowledge base and fewer motor skills, have special computer needs. Designers thus use animation and speech instead of text. For the visually impaired, computer designers provide screen readers. For those without use of their hands to type, computers with speech recognition devices are available.
Usable and useful technology grows in importance as technology permeates every aspect of human lives. HCI researchers have to consider not only the usefulness, but whether the technology will lead to positive social results. Like television, which had the potential for good but actually decreased social interaction and increased poor health, computer applications have the potential to inspire social good or have less wholesome effects.