If you have to justify the importance of HCI…

Can’t believe i even ran into this kind of discussion in a casual friends’ dinner.

Is the field of HCI really useful?

After having a morning of discussion of the importance of HCI, the fundamental question raised by a guy who have been working with HCI people for almost two years now seems pretty sarcastic indeed.

So his argument was the  HCI approach could only be applied to some already existing product/concepts/issues, or build on existing things, as oppose to serving as a source of innovation.  Whenever a new brand new concept comes out, HCI was not always a necessary component of that. Without HCI, people can still have pretty much the same amount of things, probably in worse usability condition, but enough for use. In other words, HCI is just for better, not for necessity.

I would probably think the same two years ago, one year ago, or even before this semester. To justify the work that one has been doing is always a painful process. People don’t want to admit that they have done something that’s not meaningful at all, but they also don’t want to defend themselves to an extreme state.

If you actually has to explain/justify/emphasize the importance of something, usually you have to rethink if it’s really important or if it’s just you, your own perspective, your values and your personal experience that biases your judgments.

So I guess for now, my answer would be “yes”, i do think HCI is important, not just for its add-on values, but for its being an “interdisciplinary” discipline that take the human care and consideration of how we should co-exist with technology, how there should be this mutual understanding between technology and us.

First, it definitely has a lot of add-on values, a better interface, a better user guide, a better toolkit, etc. too many things that could be done better to attract more users, offering them better user experience.

Second, i thought of this comparison between China and the US. Being a developing country, China doesn’t have that much money to put into HCI, cause obviously most people from China hold a similar belief as the guy i mentioned “HCI is something we could do after we become rich”. It is the fact, in most aspects, there are more urgent needs need to be meet, but not in every aspects. I believe the consideration of HCI can sometimes help us get to our goal in an easier and less costly way. The way some Chinese companies have been making profit while polluting the environment in a severe way, could possibly be avoid to some extent if the design of the machine, the production line can take the HCI sustainability into consideration.  That extra consideration of HCI does cost more in the first place, but it saves more in the future as well.

Third, the humanity care of HCI. It’s not as simple as a robot or a software interface that could read our emotions and make corresponding reactions, it’s more of how our generation, our next generation are trained “nurtured” bythe technology we are using today.  I couldn’t imagine our kids living in a world with “cold” and “inconsiderate”, but super “efficient” technology products, how the personality, values and  humanity issues can get involved.

Last, WHAT IS IMPORTANT? A classmate had this critique of a CHI paper in class the other day “i don’t think give old people an interactive record of their medical history is a useful way to help them keep healthy, we should solve problems of the medical system, the health care law, etc.” It sounds so noble at the first sight, but when you think about it, if you really want to solve the important issue, then don’t start with the States, start with Africa, there are more severe poverty, education, health issues there, more more more important than 99% of the things we are working on or doing research on here, so why don’t you go ahead and save that part of the world? As long as we can make effort, the difference and the progress we make shouldn’t be devalued. If we just gonna eliminate things that provide add-on values to  this world, then alright, let’s get rid of arts, music, the majority of social sciences, let’s just keep the hard core science part and start working on that from Africa then.

We can’t stop contributing or making changes just because it seems to be not the way that will make the biggest difference.  Moreover, there’s no ruler measurement of which way/field is making the largest contribution,  any field could, in theory. Each of those approaches need to be respected and appreciated.

Don’t know if I’ve gone tooooo far in this HCI mania mindset. I guess some parts, I am also just trying to be the devil’s advocate.  The forced justification of a field that I am going to say Goodbye soon…  so ridiculous.  What i am doing here ?!

9 thoughts on “If you have to justify the importance of HCI…

  1. Gaofeng Fan

    I am currently in a lab which pay attention of BCI(Brain computer interface) which they think could be an category of HCI. In this lab, we solve some application problem like helping the ALS patients.

    Actually, the graduate students in the lab persuade me to apply HCI program in the next year’s application.

  2. Han Wang

    I am happy to see that our discussion get extended to such a long blog post. Good job!

    I remember our discussion started with my advisor was an interesting guy and then somehow turned into a discussion about HCI in general. I was making a point that HCI technique or the importance of user experience is usually considered at a later stage of a product life cycle. By saying a product life cycle, I meant the a period from the birth of a new product, to the mature of the product and to the wide acceptance of the product. This period can be a year, two year or even a decade.

    I was making a point that HCI only becomes important when the enabling technology has matured enough, so that designers can focus more on the usability issue during the design process.If you look at most of the work that has been done on leveraging current technologies to better fit people’s need. OR, in your word, to be a “considerate” technology product. The underlying technology are matured enough or at least has been developed for years.

    Examples are abundant, computers are hard to use 30 years ago, technologies were at a primary stage. There wasn’t enough performance power and nobody really cares about the usability issue. Because they are struggling to get the machine run and get the job done. As technology evolves and matures, now, we have heaps of processing power, much more than we need for most of the tasks that we can think of. In another word, we have the luxury to spent some time on designing for user experience. And from the market point of view, we can no longer differentiate one product from the other one by adding more processing powers. User experience kicks in, because that is something the designer can work on to differentiate their product with other people’s. Another example would be the Xerox Star, a great machine that considered user experience as one of the primary design goal, but failed to gain user acceptance because of the poor performance.

    We probably had a misunderstanding about what a product is. I was thinking computer as a product in general. But my argument applies to other area of product design too. What is the point of evaluating user experience if the system is barely runnable??

    HCI sustainability? Humanity care? eh~~ I think you have gone too far in you thought, far away from our discussion.

    1. Sally

      一觉醒来发现comment part已经翻天覆地…

      现在还处于酒没醒的状态… 先挖坑… 等醒了再回… 😀

  3. Frank Chen

    Good points. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the point that China’s developing design & HCI culture is of the utmost importance even if it takes effort to get there. I really want to see Chinese ways of thinking and perspective reflected in the culture of design – it’ll definitely be interesting in the coming years to see how it comes together.

  4. notor

    I have to say that when I read the article “IPad Helps 99-Year-Old Rediscover Reading”, I was really impressed by the potential of HCI. And there are two sentences which are the most important supporters of my world view:
    They helped me understand many incrediable things I went through these years.

  5. Destiny

    ps:we do best what we do most oftenwhile asians are toiling over math and sciour kids are singing, dancing, and shooting hoopsso asian kids run all financial empires that own our singbng/dancing/ialling kids's contractsasian kids create the gadgets that our kids covet/buy/kill for etcshame!!!!ab

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