The psychology of human-computer interaction (HCI) is a sub-field in industrial and organizational psychology that deals specifically with the study, planning and design of person/user and computer interactions. An intersection of computer science, psychology, behavioral science, design and several other fields, the term itself was popularized by a book published in 1983 that is still widely used and referenced in the field.
Almost unheard of even thirty years ago, how people and computers interact in a working environment is something almost every worker pays attention to — at least on a practical level. Whether or not your email is working or your software is updated properly can have great ramifications for productivity and how you feel about your job throughout any given day. For the psychologists and scientists who try to improve the ways computers perform for people in working environments, the field is a fascinating one that concerns itself as much with one side as it does the other.
What It Isn’t
Human-computer interaction differs from the sub-field of industrial and organizational psychology known as human factors or ergonomics in that HCI’s focus is strictly on users and their work with computers instead of workers’ use of other kinds of designed tools and machines in operation in a workplace. HCI also hones in on how computer software and hardware interact to support the interaction of person and computer.
Here, then, is a closer look at how the branch of psychology that concerns itself with work, organizations and employees tries to understand and tackle the problems unique to people and their utilization of computers in the workplace.
Figuring out how to make computers more receptive to human needs is a primary concern of anyone assisting organizations in increasing worker productivity and performance — especially when that productivity and performance are dependent on computer use. When computers are not designed well, work suffers, and employees experience frustration. In extreme circumstances, poorly designed human-computer interfaces can lead to terrible accidents like the Three Mile Island accident. That nuclear reactor meltdown occurred, in part, because the design of the human-computer interface was subpar, and the workers utilizing it were not properly trained. If the human-computer interactivity had been better, the accident may not have happened.
Model and Theory Development
The development of models and theories about how humans and computers interact is an important part of improving and understanding the evolving relationship between the two. From descriptive models that try to articulate what is going on now in different workplace environments to predictive models that try to anticipate technological advancements to design the best interfaces possible for human use of computers, psychologists in a wide range of organizations and industries are working full-time to better understand and forecast how humans and computers work well — and don’t work well — together.
Techniques for Evaluating Interfaces
Because the psychology of human-computer interaction is a continually evolving one, designers are constantly coming up with new interfaces. Many industrial and organizational psychologists work to compare and assess whether these interfaces actually achieve the goal of making the interaction better, more streamlined, more user friendly, more productive, more efficient and the like in order to improve that interface and develop ones that will be better in the future.
Much of what is understood about human and computer interaction finds its way into design, and as such, HCI has developed principles of design and the evaluation of that design:
- Focus initially on the user and the task. From deciding how many users are needed to defining the nature of the task, this first step in design is crucial.
- Measure empirically. Testing must take place with real users who will use the interface every day. Quantitative metrics must be developed and applied such as how many users will perform the task, how long the task will take, how many errors get made during the task, etc.
- Take iterative design steps. After the interface has been designed, it must be tested. After testing, the results must be analyzed. This process must be repeated — and the design adjusted — until a user-friendly interface exists.
The psychology of human and computer interaction is increasingly important in our technology-driven lives. Especially as work becomes more and more computer-centered, how users can get the most out of their computers is of prime concern to organizations that are striving to become more efficient with time and money. From design to testing to the development of theories, the HCI psychologist is trying to make each person’s use of a computer more functional, more efficient and less frustrating.
About the Author: Evan Cline is a contributing writer who completed a graduate degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology.