Human-Computer Interaction and Your Site

Nicky Danino

Ever wondered what makes some Websites easier to use than others, or why some people seem to master new navigation systems quickly while others struggle to learn? Do you know why users get lost in electronic space or find it difficult to communicate with others through the medium of technology? These questions are just some of the driving forces behind research in the developing field of Human Computer Interaction.

Human Computer Interaction is a term that you may or may not have heard. So let’s explore what it is, and what role it can play in your Website development.

A Definition

Human Computer Interaction, or HCI, is the study, planning, and design of what happens when you and a computer work together. As its name implies, HCI consists of three parts: the user, the computer itself, and the ways they work together.

The User

When we talk about HCI, we don’t necessarily imagine a single user with a desktop computer. By "user", we may mean an individual user, a group of users working together, or maybe even a series of users in an organisation, each involved with some part of the job or development. The user is whoever is trying to get the job done using the technology. An appreciation of the way people’s sensory systems (sight, hearing, touch) relay information is vital to designing a first-class product. For example, display layouts should accommodate the fact that people can be sidetracked by the smallest movement in the outer (peripheral) part of their visual fields, so only important areas should be specified by moving or blinking visuals. And of course, people like designs that grab their attention. Designers must decide how to make products attractive without distracting users from their tasks.

The Computer

When we talk about the computer, we’re referring to any technology ranging from desktop computers, to large scale computer systems — even a process control system or an embedded system could be classed as the computer. For example, if we were discussing the design of a Website, then the Website itself would be referred to as "the computer".

The Interaction

There are obvious differences between humans and machines. In spite of these, HCI attempts to ensure that they both get on with each other and interact successfully. In order to achieve a usable Website, you need to apply what you know about humans and computers, and consult with likely users throughout the design process. You need to find a reasonable balance between what can be done within the schedule and budget, and what would be ideal for your users.

The Goals of HCI

The goals of HCI are to produce usable and safe systems, as well as functional systems. In order to produce computer systems with good usability, developers must attempt to:

  1. understand the factors that determine how people use technology
  2. develop tools and techniques to enable building suitable systems
  3. achieve efficient, effective, and safe interaction

Underlying the whole theme of HCI is the belief that people using a computer system should come first. Their needs, capabilities and preferences for conducting various tasks should direct developers in the way that they design systems. People should not have to change the way that they use a system in order to fit in with it. Instead, the system should be designed to match their requirements.

The same goals can be applied to Website development. Websites should be usable and safe, as well as functional, so that users can perform the task at hand without any obvious problems or usability errors.

Basic Principles of HCI

1. Requirements Analysis

  • Establish the goals for the Website from the standpoint of the user and the business.
  • Agree on the users’ needs and aim for usability requirements.
  • Appraise existing versions of the Website (if any).
  • Carry out an analysis of the competition.
  • Complete discussions with potential users and questionnaires.

2. Conceptual Proposal

  • Outline site design and architecture at an abstract level.
  • Perform a task analysis to identify essential features.

3. Prototyping

  • Create visual representations (mock ups) or interactive representations (prototypes) of the Website.
  • Evaluate usability using a proven method.
  • Using the results, create more mock ups or improve the prototypes.
  • Repeat this process until the design and usability goals are met.

4. Development

  • Create the final product.
  • Evaluate functionality through testing, quality assurance, usability testing, and field testing.
  • Use the evaluation results to improve the product.
  • Repeat this process until the business goals are met.

5. Launch and Housekeeping

  • Launch the Website.
  • Maintain and tweak with user feedback (housekeeping).
  • Use the feedback to create new requirements, and begin major design improvements (system iteration).

The Importance of HCI in Website Development

The importance of HCI in the future of Website development is not to be taken lightly. It has been shown that a large percentage of the design and programming effort of projects go into the actual Website design. The interface is a fundamental part of making the site more successful, safe, useful, functional and, in the long run, more pleasurable for the user.

The tools and techniques that have been developed in this field have contributed immensely towards decreasing costs and increasing productivity. Savings have been created through decreased task time, fewer user errors, greatly reduced user disruption, reduced burden on support staff, the elimination of training, and avoidance of changes in maintenance and redesign costs. Studies have shown that, by estimating all the costs associated with usability engineering, the benefits can amount to 5000 times the project’s cost. HCI is a Web imperative now, and it’ll continue to be so in future.