[ExI] The Field of HCI

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Sat Feb 2 12:26:39 UTC 2013

On 31/01/2013 02:14, Natasha Vita-More wrote:
> Human-computer interaction is one field I am teaching two classes in 
> (theory and prototyping) and I'd like to ask you all for any insights, 
> suggestions, latest theories, methods, etc. that would be helpful to 
> these undergrad students who want to their work at a master's level.

Hmm, HCI is tricky. When I took it it was heavy on cognitive science 
models, which was frankly rather boring. At the same time it borders on 
design and very creative topics.

I think a key skill is being able to critique designs. To actually take 
something, play around with it, and then not just tell whether it feels 
good or bad (useful/useless, easy/hard, whatever) but to articulate 
*what* makes it feel like that. This is not just good for feedback and 
commentary, but for discovering how things can be made better. Even if 
you don't know how to fix a problem, by formulating it clearly others 
can help - and often even formulating it tends to resolve what should be 

Norman was my start too, he is good. I am also a great fan of Edward 
Tufte (who isn't?), and since so much of the complexity of current 
computers is about showing (or not showing) information he is quite 
relevant to HCI. A lot of the wild and wonderful designs found in the 
archives of http://infosthetics.com/ and http://benfry.com/projects/ 
ought to be inspirational.

Finally, something I think was totally lacking when I studied HCI and I 
hope has become relevant now: motivation. Looking at the user interfaces 
of Bryce or World of Warcraft shows something that would have failed all 
the criteria discussed: too messy and idiosyncratic. Yet people learn 
them, and become very good at using them. Why? Because they are 
delightful to use, or the program itself allows you to do something 
highly motivating. The work on gamification (and MacGonigals work on 
ARGs) suggests to me that if you make the interfaces motivate users in 
the right way the strangest interface will be learnable. So maybe the 
core issue is not to fix the epistemic/perceptual aspects but the 
emotional and motivational: if your software has the right built in 
motivators (and demotivators) it will drive the right kind of learning 
and use. But whether there is a good theory for this yet, I do not know. 
Maybe the game design literature is worth a glance.

(Hmm, having an active wordcount in the lower border of a window might 
actually be a simple gamification of writing, rewarding me with "points" 
for writing... maybe it should also list the number of misspellings - 
wordprocessing as a game!)

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Philosophy Faculty of Oxford University

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