Back in the days of my high school, computers were an enigma. It was the late 90s when computers were introduced into our curriculum and we were always eager to go to the 'computer room' once a week where those curious looking white boxes were harbingers of endless possibilities. As with most lessons, our first interactions with the computer involved getting familiar with the components of the device. Though, most times, we were busy getting lost in the labyrinths of file structures and memorizing the history of computers, we often played games when our instructor was not looking. In other words, we were excited to be interacting with computers.
Today, we are deep into information age, where technological advancement has reached such a point that almost everyone has come in contact with computers in one way or another. If we pause for a moment and take a look around and think about what we use in a typical day – ATM, cell phones, calculators, photocopiers, air conditioners, microwaves – all have computers in them, and the endlessness of the list is evidence of the fact that computers have become an integral part of our everyday lives.
With this pervasiveness of computers in our daily lives, we may have to take a step back and analyze how we interact with these machines – so as to facilitate and improve our user experience with them.
In the past, devices such as cameras, ovens, washing machines were much simpler and easier to use. These days, devices are more feature-rich, which tends to make them more complicated to use, adding to the frustration of majority of end users. One survey by a British manufacturer, Novatech, found that one in every four computers is physically attacked – often by frustrated users.
In general, users should not have to acquire computer literacy to use computers for common tasks in everyday life. Users of enterprise applications also should not normally have to be computer experts to use enterprise applications, where the user is already trained in the application domain. An accountant, for instance, who is trained in the general principles of accounting, should not have to be a computer expert to use a computer in her practice. Her domain knowledge should be enough to get her through.
However, there are challenges in creating a smooth user experience for humans because humans and computers are two disparate entities as exemplified by the table below.
|Incredibly fast||Incredibly slow|
|Error free||Error prone|
Human Computer Interaction (HCI), is a field of study which aims to facilitate the interaction of users, whether experts or novices, with computers. It improves user experience by identifying factors that helps reduce the learning curve for new users and also provides provisions such as keyboard shortcuts and other navigational aids for trained users.
Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) defines HCI as “a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them”. The goal of HCI is “to develop or improve the safety, utility, effectiveness, efficiency and usability of systems that include computers” [Interacting with computers, 1989].
Usability revolves around learn-ability (ease of learning for novice users), efficiency (steady-state performance of expert users), memorability, subjective satisfaction as well as error rate. Analysis in HCI involves monitoring the behavior of end users around machines so as to identify areas where improvements can be made. This can lead to development of systems which are enjoyable, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, rewarding and supportive of creativity.
The goals of HCI span multidisciplinary spectrum of cognitive psychology, linguistics, philosophy, ergonomics, artificial intelligence and communication environment. It identifies the hurdles posed by cognitive framework of the humans, such as illusions, blind spots, and the innate function of the brain to filter out all the sensory inputs along with the inability for prolonged attention.
At Deerwalk, high usability is a top priority when designing products. Dambar Thapa, a senior creative designer, says “At Deerwalk, we focus on two key factors while designing websites. First, we focus on 'user experience' which basically boils down to the notion of how a user feels about a website. Second, we focus on ‘compatibility’ with an intention to make websites look and function similarly in different platforms and environments such as different browsers and screen resolutions. In addition, we also pay attention to web accessibility for people with disabilities using assisted technologies to browse our websites. In a nutshell, we strive to make our websites user-friendly and compatible so that they have a wider and happier audience.”
Once we incorporate the principles of HCI into the software development paradigm, its benefits are immediately visible from improved user experience. Relationships are built with repeated interactions and this ultimately leads to wholehearted acceptance by end-users.