The discipline of HCI

The discipline of HCI

Editorial The discipline of HCI Dan Diaper The subtitle of the journal interacting with Computers: the Interdisciplinary Iournal of Human-Computer Z...

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The discipline of HCI Dan Diaper

The subtitle of the journal interacting with Computers: the Interdisciplinary Iournal of Human-Computer Znteraction was chosen because Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is an endeavour that involves many disciplines. It is debatable whether HCI is a discipline. What should not be debatable is that the ‘I’ in ‘HCI’ stands for ‘interaction’ and not for ‘interface’. The latter assumes that solutions to problems in HCI always involve the interface between a computer and its operator. However, unless ‘interface’ is defined too broadly to be useful, there are solutions in HCI that do not involve changing the interface at all. For example, some problems may be solved by providing training, or by changing the operators’ tasks or the practices of their organisation. One of the few apparent agreements in HCI is that it enjoys input from a variety of different disciplines. It has been described as pluralistic (Norman and Draper, 1986) and multidisciplinary (Baecker and Buxton, 1987). However, these terms could be interpreted as implying that HCI is not a discipline, but an area to which other, true disciplines, contribute. Norman and Draper, for example, state, ‘We are prepared to take on board any discipline, any approach that helps.’ This editorial argues that there is a discipline of HCI, albeit an engineering, rather than a scientific, one. If HCI is a discipline then it should possess at least a set of common goals, if not common axioms. This editorial proposes that the goals of HCI are: ‘to develop or improve the safety, utility, effectiveness, efficiency, and usability of systems that include computers’. The term ‘system’ here derives from systems theory and HCI systems are not computer systems, nor only operator-computer systems, but need to be represented as richer, more complex systems. This led Diaper (1986) to suggest that HCI safety issues, for example, need to encompass not only the computer system and its individual users, but also colleagues who do not use the computer, the organisation that owns the computer, and also those less immediately involved including households, other organisations, classes within society and society itself, both national and global. A concern with systems of this breadth clearly requires an eclectic approach involving many disciplines. However, these goals often conflict. For example, a commonly used command might, on the grounds of efficiency, be implemented so as to require a minimum of keystrokes. This can have serious consequences if a keystroke error is Department of Computer L69 3BX, UK

Science, University

of Liverpool,


$03.00 @ 1989 Butterworth



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made (i.e. in Diaper’s terms, the command is not safe). For example, in Unix the file delete command is ‘rm’ (remove) and a common command using wild characters might be ‘rm *bak’, which will delete all files ending with ‘bak’ (i.e. back-up files). However, it is easy to place inadvertently a space after the ‘*’ which causes a catastrophic failure that will delete all the files in the directory. Resolving such goal conflict is a common requirement of an engineering discipline, rather than of a scientific one. Thus HCI is plausibly an engineering discipline involving a criteria-satisfying approach and the selection or design of one solution from a number that could satisfy requirements. It is possible that there could be a science of HCI as well as an engineering discipline. Those who do not find the term ‘computer science’ to be an epistemological misnomer will not find this problematic as HCI could be a science like computer science. However, this view of computer science is not universally accepted, and at least a distinction can be made between the natural sciences and those that are sciences of human products (artificial sciences?). Furthermore, there is no currently agreed content for the science of HCI. Thus the possible ‘science of HCI’ is currently theoretical, and this editorial assumes that HCI is an engineering discipline. This assumption is made on the grounds that considerable benefits accrue from allowing HCI to be pluralistic in its input from other disciplines without confounding or constraining its engineering goals. So in what sense is HCI ‘interdisciplinary’ ? If HCI is an engineering discipline then it cannot be interdisciplinary within itself. It can, however, be interdisciplinary in two ways. First, it can take input from other disciplines as has already been noted. Second, many of the people interested in HCI may be in other disciplines. This latter point requires a definition of a discipline that focuses on people’s roles, rather than on subjects of study. The British Computer Society’s Human-Computer Interaction Specialist Group says of itself, ‘We aim to bridge the gap which we feel exists between users who work directly designers who implement such systems, and with computer systems, researchers who investigate how humans use those systems.’ (Murray and Diaper, 1986). While there may not be a discipline of computer users, it is plausible to argue that many of the people who design computer systems, for example, are not in the HCI discipline but are users of HCI’s products. To go further, only a relatively small cadre may work in the HCI discipline, but there is a much larger number who use or contribute to it. Finally, what are HCI’s contributing disciplines? Any list will naturally be incomplete so only types of discipline will be suggested. Apart from HCI’s central disciplines of psychology and computer science, the possible contributions from disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and linguistics, and from noncomputer engineering disciplines, including ergonomics, are obvious, as are those from the disciplines that provide tools such as philosophy, mathematics and artificial intelligence. This list is rather like that of cognitive science (e.g. Stillings et al., 1987) although cognitive science’s goal, ‘to answer long-standing epistemological questions - particularly those concerning the nature of know-





vol I no 1 (1989)


ledge’ (Gardner, 1985) is different from HCI’s goals. HCI has a need, as yet not realised, to involve the humanities and the arts. Humanities subjects such as history and economics are desparately needed to place the information technology revolution (e.g. Forester, 1972) in its appropriate context. Similarly, literature and fine art should make major contributions to HCI, both directly to design and by analysis in noncomputer contexts (for example, Kindborg and Kollerbaur, 1987). Subjects such as business studies, accountancy, and law are also still under-represented in HCI. HCI needs to be a church of broad foundations if it is to achieve real success. The engineering discipline of HCI may be relatively constrained exclusively to involve systems that include both people and computers, but there are probably few disciplines that could not make some contribution. The editorial board of Interacting with Computers aims to produce a journal of intellectual quality but also one that can be understood and used by a diverse audience with different needs, interests and knowledge.

References Baecker, R.M. and Buxton, W.A.S. (1987) ‘Cognition and human information processing’ (Introduction to Chapter 6) in Readings in Human-Computer Interaction. Morgan Kaufmann, 207-218 Diaper, D. (1986) ‘Will expert systems be safe?’ in Proc. 2nd International Expert Systems Conference Learned Information Oxford and New Jersey, 561-572 Forester, T. (1982) The microelectronics revolution: the complete guide to the new technology and its impact Blackwells, Oxford, UK Gardner, H. (1985) The minds new science: u history of the cognitive reuolution Basic Books, New York, USA Kindborg, M. and Kollerbaur, A. (1987) ‘Visual languages and human computer interaction’ in Diaper, D. and Winder, R. (eds) People and Computers III: hoc. 3rd Conf. KS HCI SG Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 175-187 Murray, D. and Diaper, D. (1986) ‘The BCS HCI Group’, Computer Bulletin 2,3,3-6 Norman, D.A. and Draper, S.W. ‘Introduction’ in User centred system design. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, USA, l-6 Stillings, N.A., Feinstein, M.H., Garfield, J.L., Rissland, E.L., Rosenbaum, D.A., Weisler, S.E. and Baker-Ward, L. (1987) Cognitive science: an introduction MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA