Where’s the Human in Human Computer Interaction?

If HCI is concerned about people interacting with technology, about narrowing that gap [1], then why do we witness it failing so often?  I define ’failing’ in this context as where our interfaces do not provide a conduit for us to exploit the technology, leading to us becoming confused and exerting effort to do the simplest of things such as switching on our TVs [2].  For personal computers there may be a historical element of forgiveness as these artefacts were aimed at the more technology aware but with ubicomp this should not apply.  Items such as microwave, TVs, car radios should disappear from view [3] with no conscious effort in controlling them.

HCI has also been posed as a problem solving tool [4], but then whose problems are we solving?

An example is the photograph of an old car radio. Yes, sure, it doesn’t have the myriad of features of a modern car radio but it would be interesting to compare how we would use this old radio against a modern version when we have no instruction manual and without losing concentration on the primary task of driving.


So why are we where we are? 

My belief is that our focus has been in the wrong place.  Papers such as “Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse” [5] take a similar view, arguing that we attempt (i.e. fail) to mirror the real world in our living labs and then fall short by treating people as either “users” or “non-users”.  This latter view is discussed at depth in the paper, examining the issues with how we reduce a wide range of attributes that describe an artefact or a person into a short list or even binary e.g. user/non-user.  How we do this is explained through feminist epistemology, in that established patriarchal mores have been and are being used to distil attributes.  Breaking the mould by using feminist approaches can identify where this arises and use partial perspectives to take critical attributes such as locality & plurality into account rather than disappearing them away within a standardization exercise.


Where to next?

How do we change our approach?  “Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse” argues we can use that same feminist philosophy to shift from the “rhetoric of the center and periphery”, to work with people on their terms, to learn from history, to celebrate locality, polyvocality and diversity.  Participatory design can be used to research & design alongside citizens, not just performed by those with the knowledge and power.

“Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse” also argues to ban “user” from our vocabulary and although I concur with the sentiment, I believe we would just use a different term to think in the same way.  Difficulties also lie in how we reduce many-faceted concepts, I believe we need to do this so as humans we can manage great complexity, but perhaps we need to maintain a higher degree of complexity at the expense of effort.

Let’s place the “H” back in “HCI”.


  1. Wright, P. (2011). Reconsidering the H , the C , and the I. Interactions, 18(5), 28. https://doi.org/10.1145/2008176.2008185
  2. Darnell, M. J. (2008). Making digital tv easier for less-technically-inclined people. Proceeding of the 1st International Conference on Designing Interactive User Experiences for TV and Video – Uxtv ’08, 27. https://doi.org/10.1145/1453805.1453812
  3. Weiser, M. (1991). The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0991-94
  4. Oulasvirta, A., & Hornbæk, K. (2016). HCI Research as Problem-Solving. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’16, 4956–4967. https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858283
  5. Dourish, P., & Mainwaring, S. D. (2012). Ubicomp ’ s Colonial Impulse, 133–142.

Author: Peter Glick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *