What is HCI? A Beginner's Guide to Human-Computer Interaction

Author headshot of Rachel Meltzer.

Computers are everywhere. What once started as a massive machine spanning an entire room has now found its way into virtually every part of our daily lives. From our smartphones to our cars, kitchen appliances to televisions—you’re probably interacting with at least four computers per day at a minimum. 

As technology continues evolving throughout the 21st century, the necessity for intentional computer design is more important than ever. But how do designers and engineers know how to create accessible, intuitive computer experiences for humans? 

Enter Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). In this beginner’s guide, we explore the difference between human-computer interaction and user experience design, along with everything else you need to know about HCI. We’ll cover: 

  1. A brief history of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)
  2. What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)?
  3. How similar are HCI and UX design?
  4. What are the differences between HCI and UX design?
  5. How to learn more about Human-Computer Interaction
  6. Final thoughts

1. A brief history of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

In the early 1980s alongside the dawn of personal computing, human-computer interaction (HCI) was founded by John M. Carroll. When personal computers were first introduced, they required complex knowledge for even the most basic of tasks. 

Beginning with operating systems and desktop applications, HCI attempted to study how computers could be made more user-friendly. Eventually, HCI expanded to include nearly every form of information technology, from games and education platforms to e-commerce and medical applications.

Out of HCI came interaction design and user experience design (UX). These all fit together with user interface design (UI design) and product design. 

2. What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)?

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) studies the optimization of how people and computers interact. This field of study is mainly focused on researching best practices and making design recommendations. 

HCI is made up of multidisciplinary studies, including elements of: 

  • Computer science
  • Psychology
  • Behavioral Science
  • Ergonomics 
  • Linguistics
  • Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Engineering (building things that work with our thoughts)

It dives deep in order to understand both the physical and emotional aspects of how humans interact with computers. Using iterative design practices HCI experts improve the functionality and comfort of computer interfaces. HCI focuses on three main components: the user, the computer’s interface, and how they work together.

HCI researches every dimension of human and computer interfacing including: 

  • Words
  • Visual representations
  • Physical objects and space
  • Time
  • Behavior

In a practical sense, studying these dimensions lead to insights about goal-driven design, usability, ergonomics, emotional responses, user personas, patterns, and iterations.

HCI aims to minimize the amount of effort a user must exert to use technology. The end goal is to make interactions with computers resemble human-to-human open-ended dialogue as much as possible.

3. How similar are HCI and UX design?

Human-Computer interaction and UX design are similar in many ways. In fact, HCI is considered to be the predecessor of UX design. The information that is gathered by HCI practitioners is used to constantly refine the world of UX design. 

Both HCI and UX design involve significant amounts of user research, iterative testing, and information architecture (IA). They each aim to make interacting with computers of all kinds more accessible and intuitive.

4. What are the differences between HCI and UX design?

While UX design and HCI overlap quite a bit, there are key differences that you should understand. HCI is focused primarily on the interactions a user has with the product and how that can be executed comfortably. UX designers are concerned with the entire big-picture user journey that is made up of all of those interactions.

User experience design is all about development. It practices manufacturing a user’s experience of products, apps, or services. It’s industry-focused and has short-term deadlines.

Human-computer interaction is all about research. It practices building a foundational understanding of how humans interact with computers and how that can be optimized. It’s academically-focused and has the opportunity for long-term study. 

5. How to learn more about Human-Computer Interaction

Want to learn more about human-computer interaction? We’ve put together a list of the best free resources for learning HCI online. 

Final thoughts

In this guide, we’ve explored human-computer interaction and how it relates to UX design. We’ve learned that:

  • Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the study of how humans interact with computers and how those interactions can be improved.
  • HCI and UX design overlap, but UX design is industry-driven while HCI is research-focused. 
  • HCI is a multidisciplinary study that aims to help computers function more like actual human interactions. 

The study of human-computer interaction is the foundation of a great human experience. It infiltrates our everyday lives in both minute and massive ways. 

Imagine how different your life would be if you needed to know console commands just to use a computer. Consider how convenient the invention of things like T9 typing and predictive text have made your daily life. Not to mention smart TVs, smart watches, and home security systems!  

If you’d like to read more about UX and its associated areas, then these articles may be of interest:

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