What Is Human-Computer Interaction?

Industry Advice Computing and IT

In 2006, the Nintendo Wii launched and revolutionized the gaming industry. While traditional gaming controllers featured only buttons, triggers, and joysticks, for example, the Wii also included internal gyroscopes and controller-based accelerometers to sense rotation, tilting, and acceleration. These movements translated onto the screen during gameplay.

Nintendo’s use of movement in the Wii was praised for its intuitive and innovative design, which was born out of the study of human-computer interaction (HCI), a field that integrates theories and methodologies from computer science, cognitive psychology, design, and other areas to examine the design of computer technology and the interaction between humans and computers.

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The Rise of HCI

The field of HCI surfaced in the late 1970s alongside the emergence of personal computing. As computers shrunk in size and became less expensive—and therefore more available to general consumers—a need emerged to create human-computer interaction that was easy and efficient for less-experienced users.

Desktop computers, for example, needed to be intuitive for inexperienced users and not just trained professionals. Later, the focus of HCI expanded to include games, learning and education, commerce, health and medical applications, emergency planning and response, and systems to support collaboration and community.

Today, the multidisciplinary field of HCI represents the intersection of computer science and behavioral sciences. The aim is to create a user-friendly system that’s functional and safe—a concept that seems straightforward but requires a unique combination of computer science, cognitive science, and human factors engineering skills.

What Do HCI Researchers Do?

Human-computer researchers seek to understand how people think and interact, then incorporate these factors into a new system’s design or into an update of an existing system, says Bethany Edmunds, associate dean and director of Computer Science at Northeastern University’s Vancouver campus.

“Our brains work in interesting ways,” she says. “We have innate reactions to things like colors and shapes, and researchers need to understand these nuances in order to display or present information in the best possible way.”

For example, if an HCI researcher is writing software to allow a nurse to view an electronic medical record on a screen, the researchers need to gain a better understanding of the nurses’ needs, including constraints, environmental and comfort factors, productivity considerations, personal experiences, and more. These factors must be considered during software development in order to create an interface that is user-friendly, functional, and safe.

For these reasons, people in the HCI field must have a strong background in research—including various research methods—and be comfortable with running studies, Edmunds says. They should know how to present data analysis and practice empathy in their work, as well.

“[This work involves] a fair amount of studying people, practicing empathy, and understanding that there’s a person on the other end of [the] software,” she says. “Empathy is something that many software engineers should practice but don’t. You need to acknowledge your own biases and have empathy for the fact that the way you do things might not be the way somebody else would necessarily do something.”

Applications of HCI

Human-computer researchers are assets to a number of organizations that develop mission-critical software, Edmunds says. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, employs an HCI division that studies control towers. Before making changes to the color or the font used in the air traffic control software, they perform rigorous studies to understand how the changes might affect the users. Otherwise, Edmunds says, software changes without the proper research and testing could be disastrous.

While other organizations may not dedicate an entire division to HCI, the principles derived from it are applicable to a number of jobs. For example:

  • Product developers may use HCI methodologies to better understand the user of a new electronic device or software the company is planning to launch.
  • User experience developers may employ HCI research to make sure the company’s website or advertisements encourage customers to buy.
  • Data scientists may study HCI to develop data visualization dashboards that best convey information in the most usable way.
  • Software engineers may employ HCI research when developing revolutionary products for new audiences.

Why Study HCI?

Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence offers a specialization in Intelligent Interaction and the Master of Science in Computer Science program offers a specialization in human-computer interaction. These are popular choices among students with a variety of unique goals and backgrounds.

“Some students are entrepreneurs who have an idea and want to know more about why people do something the way they do. Some have a curiosity about people, psychology, or cognitive science, while other students really enjoy research,” Edmunds says. “We see a diverse group of students who have had different life experiences and see things differently or think that maybe software hasn’t been designed for them. Others are more social programmers who want more of a background in the people piece of HCI.”

Did You Know: Alongside a Boston program, Northeastern’s Master of Computer Science degree is offered at a variety of the university’s regional locations, including San Francisco, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Vancouver. Choosing to study a niche topic such as HCI in any of these cities—each known for its high number of computer science job opportunities—is a strategic move for those hoping to kick-start their career in the industry.

Students who specialize in human-computer interaction at Northeastern learn the foundations of human abilities, computational artifacts, design, and evaluation. The concentration also delves into the research methods for designing and evaluating computer software systems, as well as next-generation integration modalities, including sensors, haptics, wearables, and performative interfaces. 

“The skills you learn—[which range] from research to data analysis—are applicable to more than just this one area,” Edmunds says. “Human-computer interaction is really an interesting field to study for those with an interest in the human side of technology.” 

Discover more about Northeastern’s Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence and Master of Science in Computer Science programs, and make the next move toward your career in technology today.


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