My final paper for my HCI Intro Course

Here is my final paper for my Introduction to User Centered Design Course, with perhaps a slightly more affirmative tone than is fully genuine, but I wanted to keep it anyway…

What I Learned in HCI 440

This course did help me achieve my goal of obtaining a better sense of what was entailed in the field of human computer interaction (HCI). The course helped me improve my understanding of the discipline’s focus, and its admittedly fuzzy boundaries. It also helped clarify the details of some components of the field.

In particular, there were three key points I learned in this course that were central to my understanding of what HCI is about. The first and most important is the centrality of users themselves to the process. HCI does involve the deployment of heuristics and professional expertise, but doing it well requires the active involvement of users. The human in human-computer interaction is not the designers or the programmers, but the users, and they have to be involved directly, rather than as cognitive or heuristic abstractions in order to effectively develop products to meet their needs.

The second key point that developed my understanding of the field which I learned from this course is that HCI about something both more and different than the development of efficient and effective user interfaces; it is about the making an engaging and enjoyable user experience. Similar to the central premise of Descartes Error by Antonio Damasio, rational thought does not provide the central definition of human experience. Human brains are built from emotion up. Similarly, the emotional experience of a user experience is an important and central element of its design. If an application does not engage users such that they want to use it, it will fail. Even if it is designed to be extremely efficient and extremely effective for users as an application, if people do not enjoy using it, and do not keep using it, then it does not succeed. And for some applications, particularly games and other entertainment functions, efficiency may be beside the point. Consider Progress Quest (www.progressquest.com), a highly efficient parody of a roleplaying game where the user does not provide input after starting the game. Judged for its humor value, I find it quite effective. But as a game, it is less than engaging. Frequently users playing a game are looking for a challenge, which generally recasts goals like efficiency and ease of use to consider what emotional experience the game is trying to invoke.

And finally, the third defining point I learned in this course is the importance of understanding your goals and designing for those goals. This issue underlies several topics, including the distinction between key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics, the conduct of background research, and what information or interactions to emphasize in the development of a user interface. While this is an obvious consideration in any endeavor, it was important to raise the point that not all products, applications, or interfaces have the same set of goals, and that there is no one simple ideal to strive for in developing a user interface.

In addition, I learned the general types of work and issues that HCI practitioners engage with, including a more complete understanding of the range of methods employed by HCI practitioners in industry and some less explicit challenges that may be faced by practitioners in the field. I also learned which methods are more or less commonly used and the advantages and disadvantages attendant to different methods. Through this course, I obtained a better understanding of the types of tradeoffs that practitioners commonly have to make between quality, time, and money of their methods as well as the underlying principle of affordances (a term which I had not previously encountered).

I learned that HCI involves various activities, and various subspecialties. They can include activities like conducting background research, reaching out to and involving users in the development process, developing content strategy, designing services and interactions, prototyping and testing, and data visualization. It also laid out the use of developing personas, concepts, scenarios, and storyboards as tools to facilitate project communication and coordination. In addition, throughout this process, HCI professionals must not merely advocate for the users’ interests, but also advocate for the value of collecting and incorporating user feedback to products.

Through this course, I learned about the changing role of HCI activities throughout a product’s lifecycle. In particular, I had not expected or appreciated the importance of pre-design background research to get a better understanding of the space of needs for an interface to address. In addition, I had not previously considered the HCI role in iterating to new product designs based on feedback from existing products.

What HCI Topics I Want to Learn More About

I did want to learn a little more about how HCI compares to other disciplines. What I’m envisioning is a chart that compares commonly used terms both inside and outside HCI and distinguishes between them, with appropriate disclaimers about fuzzy terminology. For example, what exactly is included in information architecture, and how does it relate to information visualization? To the extent that there is a clear and meaningful distinction between interaction design and user experience design, I felt we received a good explanation of that. Recognizing that job postings and other uses of the term may contain ambiguity, I still would have found it valuable to have a clearer understanding in my own mind of what the various sub-domains of HCI are, and how they interact with other fields outside HCI (web and mobile development, product management, etc).

The class did touch on data visualization, but I thought that was a topic that would be very interesting to explore in greater depth. As presented in class, it seemed like an interesting topic, with clear relevance to user experience design, but what, if any, specialized tools to use to select particular visualizations to meet user needs would be an interesting addition to the existing course content.

How I Would Improve on our Group Project

Our group project was a user interface for a mobile speech recording and coaching application, with an included word sense disambiguation and cultural coaching function. If I could do it all over again, probably the most central point for me would be to develop a more coherent set of personas, concepts, and scenarios to guide our interface design process. In particular, I think we could have developed the concepts into a more coherent whole. While the various functionalities proposed by our interface do inter-relate, I feel like they could be more coherent. In the beginning, I did not fully appreciate the value of those documents to reach agreement on goals and later to guide the development of wireframes and prototypes.

[more detailed project and grading structure commentary redacted]

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