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7 Reasons to Study Human-Computer Interaction

7 Reasons to Study Human-Computer Interaction

  • Education
Ashley MurphyJun 11, 2019

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is a multidisciplinary subject that focuses on computer design and user experience. It brings together expertise from computer science, cognitive psychology, behavioural science, and design to understand and facilitate better interactions between users and machines.

The subject is broken down into three parts: the user, the computer, and the interaction. The user is any individual or group and considers all of the factors that may influence their interaction with a machine, including sensory systems (sight, sound, touch), level of education, age, and cultural or social differences. The computer is a broad term that refers to any piece of technology, software, or digital platform. Interaction is the design element. Its primary goals are usability and functionality, which are always unique to every specific project. For example, a developer working on a piece of software to encourage children to get into coding will have very different HCI considerations from the designer working on a program for a professional coder.

HCI emerged in the 1980s as a response to the development of the personal computer. For the first time in history, computers were available to general consumers, which created a new set of design problems. It was no longer about what a computer could do, but how it could do it. Getting this right was an essential part of making computers a commercial success, as they had to appeal to and satisfy every type of consumer, from the most experienced to the complete novice. As such, the first mainstream tech companies reframed the relationship between humans and machines into something much more meaningful than mere use value. Instead, they viewed it as an open-ended dialogue, a fluid and dynamic relationship which is continuously evolving in response to new technology and new consumer demands. This is how, in less than 40 years, we have gone from the Commodore 64 to hand-held smart technologies that seem to know we are, what things we like to do, and can even make accurate predictions as to what we might do next.

Unsurprisingly, HCI has become one of the most important considerations for any digital or tech provider, and this relatively new field offers a multitude of career options for tech-savvy students. So here are four reasons why you should study HCI.

HCI is about doing things better

Usability is the key term in HCI. Although HCI deals with some highly technical aspects of computer science, it's essentially a people-centric discipline. After all, what good is technology if we can't actually use it? Usability is redefined depending on the design aims. Safety and functionality are always primary, but there are other things to consider, including effectiveness, efficiency, and, in some cases, enjoyability. And in today's highly competitive digital markets, HCI design can be the difference between success and failure.

Good HCI design will encourage people to use one mobile app over another or to purchase a specific smartphone or tablet. It can also significantly improve business productivity levels. A customer service agent who has to navigate serval different systems to fulfill a request is far more likely to make mistakes than one who works with an integrated system. It also takes longer. A well designed HIC system design can improve sales and service levels, as well as boost customer satisfaction by removing (or at least reducing) those frustrating call waiting times.

HCI will shape the future - for better or worse

HCI is more integrated into our daily lives than ever before. In fact, it’s pretty much everywhere. We use it to find relevant information, manage our finances, make new friends, advance our careers or studies, and find new forms of entertainment. It has become such an essential part of the modern experience that some of us struggle to imagine living without our devices. And when we do, we sometimes experience a low-level dread or anxiety that researchers have called nomophobia. A combination of the words 'no', 'mobile', and 'phobia', nomophobia is a modern phenomenon highlighting a very new type of relationship between humans and machine.

Nomophobia also focuses on some of the more negative aspects of HIC. Researchers found certain games or apps can encourage compulsive behaviour by stimulating the brain’s dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in the body. It plays a significant role in regulating our mood and essentially rewards us with feel-good chemicals that motivate us to take actions that meet our needs and desires. This is what can cause someone to check their social media account up to 50 times a day. After all, each time they click, there's a chance they will see another like, retweet, or positive comment. In other words, another form of validation. And this doesn't happen by accident. Sean Parker was a founding member of Facebook. When asked about the design process behind the social media app, he said, “The thought process was: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?...we… give you a little dopamine hit.”

Social media is a perfect example of how HCI can drive human behaviour. But it can also give birth to some less desirable forms of communication, such as internet trolling. So it's important to remember that HCI isn't just about making things work well; it also has a strong ethical dimension that relates to our mental health, our online interactions, and even the quality of our political discourse. HCI will continue to shape our experiences long into the future, and those working within the field have a responsibility to make sure it brings out the best in us, rather than the worst.

HCI has lots of career opportunities

If you are looking to give yourself a wide range of career options, studying HCI is an excellent starting point. HCI is primarily about solving problems and innovation. HCI students learn how to identify areas of improvement and then create better services and products. And if you can demonstrate these skills to a potential employer, then you'll significantly raise your chances of standing out in highly competitive job markets.

HCI courses (especially at postgraduate level) often have close ties with established or emerging tech companies. As such, they’ll be plenty of opportunities for networking, including internships and placements at prestigious companies. Many HCI students end up working at some of the most successful and influential tech giants, such as Google, Microsoft, and Samsung. Specific career paths include software engineer, UX designer, computer programs, system engineer, and project manager, while others go on to build their own tech startups or work freelance.

HCI is an industry of the future., As technology continues to develop and become more widely available, there will be an increasing demand for HCI engineer and designers. This means long-term job security, as well as a very realistic opportunity to earn a decent salary - the average salary for an HCI engineer is around $96,924 per year. What's more, you'll be working at the forefront of innovation, helping to create and design the next generation of technology that could vastly improve the lives of millions of people

It tackles some of the biggest threat to our future

A recent study at the University of Bristol found HCI design can help tech companies reduce their carbon footprint. Researchers focused on Youtube, which streams around 1 billion hours worth of video every single day. Over 12 months, this generates almost 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - the same amount as a city the size of Baltimore. However, with just a few simple design tweaks that reduce digital waste, this could be cut by between 100-500Kt of CO2 a year - the carbon footprint of nearly 30,000 UK homes.

Although various studies have identified how tech can become greener, the Bristol study is the first successful attempt at quantifying the environmental benefits of HCI design. Professor Chris Preist is the lead researcher of the study. He said, “People are aware of the significant amount of energy use of data centres and corporations are increasingly aware of the need to change their practices in light of the challenges that climate change presents to humanity and the global ecosystem."

The research at Bristol University has lead to a new off-shoot of HCI called Sustainable Interaction Design (SID). SID builds a model of a digital service, which includes data usage, user behaviour, and then identifies areas of digital waste. Then, using the principles of HCI, engineers and developers can implement design changes that significantly reduce carbon emissions without impacting the quality of the service or product. SID is already being implemented by several large businesses and corporations and looks set to play an essential role in creating more environmentally friendly digital industries. Dr Dan Schien, the lead designer of the SID model, said, “We are currently working in partnership with the BBC to understand how the footprint of BBC distribution will change over the next decade as more and more people use the internet in place of traditional broadcast TV.”

Students opting to study HCI are putting themselves in an excellent position within today's and tomorrow's job markets. It’s also an exciting opportunity to become part of a unique industry that will shape people’s lives for generations to come!

Ashley Murphy

After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.