HCI: Interdisciplinary but not intercultural

How do you begin to institutionalize Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research, practice, and education beyond its predominantly Western roots and influence? I am neither talking about the creation of international standards for usability nor international HCI education.

I am talking about a complete overhaul of the field's current underlying assumptions, principles, and methodologies by a contributing body of non-western researches, practicioners, and students. Well, maybe an "overhaul" is not the right word. But the basic point is this: HCI, like many other fields, is traditionally founded on Western ideologies, culture, user behavior, etc. This is a good start--good as a foundational piece, a model, but not as an ultimate. HCI is yet to experience a broader diversity of users, researchers, practicioners, and students spanning all economic, cultural, and religious statuses. 

But I do believe that institutionalizing HCI research, practice, and education across cultures requires the field to reach a higher level of growth and solidity. As we know it, the field is still developing. But I look forward to seeing the field benefit from a multi-cultural understanding of people and technology, and seeing developing countries innovate as well and advance in computing and HCI education as a result of embracing ethnocultural (culturally relevant) HCI principles and methodologies. 

I am a multi-cultural student existing withinin the HCI field, and expressing an opinion. 


This cellphone carries with it a unique context of use, meaning, and experience as it travels across different cultures. Sorry for the stereoptypical images of Africa, but you get the point. image source


Human Experience Part 2

User (Human) Experience is a topic in HCI focused on understanding the connection between people's intentions, emotions, the different variables of a "contextualized activity" and interaction with technology. Currently, the HCI field is rich in discourse and research on user experience, drawing upon several other disciplines such as psychology and sociology as we seek to understand the intersection between people and technology; and how technology can continually enrich lives and provide and/or support meaningful interaction and experiences.

To further discuss human experience, a quote from Ben Schneiderman, one of the pioneers of HCI and current professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, states "successful technologies are those that are in harmony with users' needs. They must support relationships and activities that enrich the users' experiences." 

So once again, technology is seen as a support, a facilitator of an already existing human state. In my previous blog post, I mentioned that people do things for their own reasons and not the reasons that you give them. Additionally, we have to understand that the reasons people do things are connected to their emotional needs and states. People do things that align with how they are feeling at a certain moment, or how they would like to feel in a future moment. Although I do little justice in explaining the true essence of user experience in the previous sentence, I believe that most, if not all conscious human action can be framed within context of an emotive experience. This makes the study of human experience a difficult one due to the very subjective nature of people, emotion, and interaction. Maybe this is the reason why the HCI field in general is not used to dealing with the topic of human experience, as mentioned by McCarthy and Wright.

Don Norman, one of the early pioneers for User Experience, states that many everyday tasks are opportunistic and not planned. He goes on to state that "opportunistic actions are those in which the behavior takes advantage of the circumstances. Rather than engage in extensive planning and analysis, the person goes about the day's activities and performs the intended action if the relevant opportunity arises." Now this is hard to replicate in a traditional scientific lab environment and it is what makes the design of meaningful interactive technologies a relatively difficult task.

I believe that at this intersection (of people, experience, and technology), HCI thrives as a field in expanding and contracting upon its own and related fields' research, and offering insights and design implications for interactive technologies. 

Human Experience Part 1

Designing successful and meaningful interactive technologies begins with an understanding of user human experience. I believe this understanding starts at the notion that people do things for their own reasons, not necessarily the reasons you as a designer give them.

Let's take a quick glance at a consumer-based example given by John McCarthy and Peter Wright. In the book titled Technology as Experience, the authors argue that  "people develop their own paths around supermarkets, tactically resisting the architecture and advertisements designed to shape their shopping behavior."

The authors go on to say that people are not just passive consumers. In fact, "consumers appropriate the physical and conceptual space created by producers for their own interest and needs...consumers complete the experience for themselves(page 11)."  

People do things for their own reasons, not the reasons you give them. These reasons are often connected their emotional state. As McCarthy and Wright put it, "interaction with technology is now as much about what people feel as it is about what people do." 

People's actions actually carry deeper meaning--more meaning than what can be conveyed through a quantitative evaluation. A design's "usability" is great to consider but doesn't solely determine the value and experience delivered. This understanding was absent in the traditionally scientific approach of the first wave of HCI, which focused primarily on the quantifiable parameters of a system's usability.

Some aspects of human experience are studied and partially understood by other fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology to name a few. The HCI field is seeking to draw upon the aforementioned fields and its own research in contributing to a relatively new topic/sub-field known as User Experience. 

I discuss more about User Experience in the next blog post.

Yahoo Answers: Engaging your audience

The following post is derived from a precis I wrote in Foundations of HCI over a year ago.

In the paper "Why Users of Yahoo! Answers Do Not Answer Questions", Dearman and Truong present a few suggestions for improving Yahoo! Answers (YA) question and answer process and interface to maximize user participation in giving quality answers to questions. After conducting a 15-week experiment, Dearman and Truong found that: 1) YA’s top and regular contributors do not answer questions for the same basic reasons (see bullet points below). 2) This problem could be solved by a few research and design approaches.

Oh, so you design experiences?

Try to explain to some what experience or interaction design is and watch the looks and questions you get. Design, to most people means graphic or web design--basically the obvious facets of visual design. You mention experience design, and it's as if you have pulled the plug to that little light bulb that goes off in their heads each time they think of design.

I recently had an experience with a particular individual. I was explaining to him what Human Computer Interaction consisted of and what User Experience (UX) design means. In the early phase of the conversation, he mentioned "What software program do you use?" I was puzzled for a second since I didn't really understand the context of the question. "What do you mean?" I replied. "Ummm, like what software do you use to design, ummm, experience and stuff?", he said. Of course this led to a conversation which consisted mainly of me trying to explain the UX field.