The relationship between HCI and Digital Civics

In this blog post, I will be exploring the relationship between Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Digital Civics. As Digital Civics researchers, it is important to understand the field of HCI and how it fits in with, and influences our work. Let’s begin with a look at what HCI is and its history.


HCI is a sub-discipline of computer science with strong links to psychology. When the field first began, it was interested in how people performed in a variety of tasks with different computer systems and user interfaces. One of the earliest papers to delve into the topic was “The Keystroke-Level Model for User Performance Time with Interactive Systems” [1], published in 1980. This took a purely quantitative approach to research and defined performance metrics to measure how effectively users performed some tasks with a system. Interestingly, at this point, it was defined as ‘User-Computer Interaction.’

In these early years, the study was focused on usability, making systems that people want to use and are able to use effectively [2]. Carroll, states that there were four underlying disciplines that came together to formulate the practice of HCI, which are still present today. These are, iterative prototyping in software development; psychology and human factors in software and computer systems; user interfaces; and cognitive science methodologies and frameworks.

A system would be created and tested with users, using quantifiable metrics like the Keystroke-Level Model mentioned above. Based on the findings, the system would be iterated on and the process repeated. This was what early HCI research looked like, though at the time, little consideration was made for the needs, abilities and preferences of the end users [2]. However, this started to change around the 1990’s when the ACM and IEEE recommended all computer science programmes in colleges, include HCI as part of the syllabus.

There began a shift from HCI research being exclusively as a means of testing response times and determining the effectiveness of a system, toward collaborative design. The practitioners were no longer solely computer scientists, rather a ‘community of communities’ [3]with a collective goal of user experience. The shift has moved from quantifying efficiency to taking experience into account.

HCI has become a significant inter-disciplinary endeavour bringing together computer science, psychology, anthropology, software design and testing, ergonomics among others.


So, now we know a bit more about the make-up of Human Computer Interaction, where does Digital Civics fit in? Just like HCI, the field of Digital Civics is an inter-disciplinary endeavour, and there is a lot of cross-over with HCI, and that is due to HCI being a major component in the tapestry of Digital Civics.

Let’s think about some of the different kind of disciplines we see in Digital Civics. We see psychology, pedagogy, public health, social care, politics, software engineering, data science, artificial intelligence, media, along with all the disciplines we see with HCI. With such a variety of disciplines working together, what is it that Digital Civics aims to do?

Thinking of earlier HCI methodology, it could be said that the subjects of the research were thought of as consumers of the technology, in the case of research done by Silicon Valley corporations, this would have been even more apparent. The shift to more collaborative design in HCI, is what we see in Digital Civics, researchers working with people to design, but not as consumers.

If the people we work with aren’t consumers, then who are they? Digital Civics refocuses the language around research partners from customers, to citizens [4]. By working with citizens, rather than consumers, the types of research that is conducted is shifted from that which is conducted in traditional HCI. There are strong links with local communities, working with “education, public health, social care and local democracy”.

The financial crisis of 2008, resulting in major economic recession, left many communities without the funding and resources necessary to continue providing the services that the people had come to rely on. As a result, different groups began to formulate, enabling people to continue the services that were being cut by governments. This solidarity economy was especially prevalent in Greece, with southern Europe being particularly affected by the financial crisis. This has taken the research in Digital Civics to investigate the process of “designing for the Solidarity Economy”[5]. By working with these groups, new technologies and ways of working have been developed, allowing more people to benefit from the work that they do.


With the background of HCI and Digital Civics established, we can now look to some of the issues that we can consider as researchers in the field. The following will discuss matters of privacy and concerns surrounding ubiquitous or pervasive computing, along with community making with social computing and the issue of social isolation.


Ubiquitous Computing or Ubicomp is a branch of HCI research looking at the use of computing everywhere, to the point that it falls into the background and becomes unnoticeable. Mark Weiser’s seminal paper “The Computer for the 21stCentury”[6], originally published in 1991, predicted a world where people interact with a form of computer in every stage of their day without actually recognising that they are actively working with a computer. To say, that the use of the device is much more natural, and akin to how they interact with other objects in the home, compared to how a computer was used at the time of its writing.

In 1991 the world wide web was only just being launched but computers were not common place. They were seen in educational institutions such as universities and in the workplace, but it was extremely rare to see a computer in the home. Compared to the world today, where computers are everywhere, we carry them around in our pocket in the form of a smart phone, on our wrists with wearable technologies, computers are even seen in door bells today. It certainly feels like we are living in the vision that Weiser had, though I would argue that we have far surpassed the world he describes.

Though, despite my thought that we do live in a ubiquitous computing world, research into ubicomp goes on, and I suppose that is due to the devices we do use, serve very specific purposes and we interact with them in ways that are dictated by the device we are using. Of course, I am speaking from a position of someone who lives in the United Kingdom, studies at a University, have worked for a technology company, and am in a privileged position compared to large populations of the world. Sure, the developed world could be considered to be living in a ubicomp world, but large sections of the developing world are far from it.

Focussing on the world where computing is pervasive and used everywhere to do everything, one has to consider how invasive computing is. Social dynamics have changed as it has become difficult not to see people buried into the screens of their smart phones. How people interact with devices and potentially lose the human connection with others will be discussed later, instead let’s talk about another way technology has become invasive, with regard to our privacy.

Weiser did mention some issues regarding the privacy of people in a connected world, by not allowing one’s neighbour to see where you have gone to when leaving the home for example, keeping that information private. Though I don’t think he could predict the sheer magnitude of privacy concerns that have been raised due to how common place computing is today.

The highest profile issue relating to this of recent years came in 2016, when Facebook became the subject of unwanted attention due to the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica. The data collected by Facebook on its users, such as their preferences based on ‘likes’ they give to certain pages, the comments they make on posts, even the friends they are connected to, was gathered and mined by Cambridge Analytica to profile the users and predict their political leanings and affiliations.

This data was used by the Trump presidential campaign (with suspected help from other outside forces) to target and influence both sides of the political spectrum. Political ad campaigns were generated and sent to everyone they could. For those who were staunchly on the opposite side, suggestions that their candidate was absolutely guaranteed to win were used, with the suggestion that it didn’t really matter if they voted as it wouldn’t affect the result, hoping they stayed home instead of voting. For supporters of the Trump campaign, the importance of voting and assistance with voting were used. For those on the fence, disinformation and fear were used to heavily influence the vote in direction of Trump. These ads, created thanks to profiling of the Facebook users were made possible due to the sheer amount of data collected on people by the devices they use all of the time. Similar tactics were employed during the referendum to leave the European Union here in the United Kingdom.

As a result of this scandal, the topic of privacy has become more salient in the minds of the general public as they hope to take control of their data. Policies such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, and the Data Protection Act (2018) here in the UK, give citizens more control over their data. It dictates how corporations should store and manage a user’s data and user’s need to be given information on how it will be used. This type of policy is a step in the right direction for the people who it protects, but it isn’t perfect. Most people would still just say ‘Agree’ to get past the obtrusive banner in the way of the content they want to consume. Also, for those outside of Europe and the UK, this sort of protection is not available, it is up to individual nations to implement such protections, but whether they are motivated to is another question.

I am as guilty as anyone for just saying yes to a privacy notification so I can read the article, or watch the video I came to a website for, but I am trying to be more conscious of checking what the site will do with my data, and I hope others will to.


Thanks to the pervasiveness of computing today, and the prevalence of social networks, we are able to connect to more people than ever before. Friendships can form between people separated by oceans, much more quickly and richly than in the days when one may have had a pen pal from another country. With the rise of social computing, there has been an increase in social isolation[7], as face to face communication between people has reduced, as alluded to earlier with people being buried in the screens of their smart phones.

Prior to this rise, we connected with the people around us, locality dictated who we might interact with. The people we grew up with in school, the people we encounter in the pub or a café, or who we encounter at a local event, these were who we could have relationships with. Now, with the prevalence of internet connected devices, we don’t need to meet someone to form a relationship with them. Many of us have rather niche interests or some kind, now what guarantee do we have that someone we meet by chance is going to happen to share that same interest. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible, but with the internet, finding and connecting with similarly interested people is so much easier.

We can become part of communities based on our interests and develop our social identities[8]on a much more granular level than was ever possible before. For example, a community that social media has allowed to thrive are those around video games, to the point where individual games have their own defined communities. These communities allow people to group up to play together, talking over voice communication through a video game console or their PC. They can discuss the latest news, tips and tricks or even share their fan art. Dominant voices in a community of any kind will rise and help form an identity for that community. In the case of video games, social media profiles for the game itself or the developer will be the most viewed by the community, and they have the most power as to the direction of the game as they are the ones who make it. However, video creators using YouTube, along with streamers on service such at[9]have become dominant forces in these communities[10].

These types of communities develop thanks to a hobby or an interest, but they can also form around an issue, or even from a chronic illness. Health vloggers using services like YouTube, share their experience of their illness[11], which can allow them to connect with others and formulate relationships, but they also do gain benefit just from the act of sharing, even if no-one happens to watch their videos.

Despite research showing increased social isolation leading to health issues due to social media usage[7], I do feel that having the ability to create new relationships with those beyond our own village, town or city can only be good in the long term. People are able to understand themselves when they can reach out to people who feel the same way they do and gain valuable advice that those around them may not be able to offer insight on.

Perhaps further research can help understand ways in which those who are susceptible to social isolation can engage in these communities, form meaningful relationships and reduce the health issues that have been found to come with the isolation.


In this piece I have discussed both HCI and Digital Civics, outlining in part, what they are and what they achieve. I have also discussed two topics relating to the field regarding ubiquitous computing and social computing.

Ubicomp and social computing may be considered much more a part of HCI research than digital civics. However, the consequences from these; privacy concerns and social isolation are issues that can be of great interest to Digital Civics research.

The concerns for privacy are real and people should be concerned with how corporation use their personal data, but I don’t know how many people really pay attention to what it is they are agreeing to when the hit the ‘Accept’ button. The level of computer literacy in the general public needs to be raised to allow average users to understand what happens with their data but also allow them to not fear using the internet as a consequence. Social isolation is another concern, and can lead to real issues developing in individuals, especially regarding their mental health.

I hope to see these issues investigated further under the lens of Digital Civics, and I am interested to see what sort of innovations may come from such research.


[1]      S. K. Card, T. P. Moran, and A. Newel, “The KLM for User Performance Time with Interactive Systems.”

[2]      J. M. Carroll, “The evolution of human-computer interaction,” Annu. Rev. Psychol., vol. 48, no. September, pp. 501–522, 2001.

[3]      K. O. ARMIN ZAHIROVIC, JONAS LOWGREN, JOHN M. CARROLL, MARC HASSENZAHL, THOMAS ERICKSON, ALAN BLACKWELL, The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed., 2nd Editio., vol. 2. Interactive Design Foundation, 2017.

[4]      P. Olivier and P. Wright, “Digital Civics: Taking a Local Turn,” pp. 61–63.

[5]      V. Vlachokyriakos et al., “HCI, Solidarity Movements and the Solidarity Economy,” Proc. 2017 CHI Conf. Hum. Factors Comput. Syst. – CHI ’17, pp. 3126–3137, 2017.

[6]      M. Weiser, “The computer for the 21st Century,”IEEE Pervasive Comput., 2002.

[7]      E. O. Whaite, A. Shensa, J. E. Sidani, J. B. Colditz, and B. A. Primack, “Social media use, personality characteristics, and social isolation among young adults in the United States,” Pers. Individ. Dif., vol. 124, no. March 2017, pp. 45–50, 2018.

[8]      H. Tajfel and J. C. Turner, “The social identity theory of intergroup behavior,” in Political psychology: Key readings in social psychology, 2004.

[9]      A. J. Pellicone and J. Ahn, “The Game of Performing Play,” Proc. 2017 CHI Conf. Hum. Factors Comput. Syst. – CHI ’17, pp. 4863–4874, 2017.

[10]    C. Drescher, S. Augustin, A. Drachen, S. Kriglstein, and M. Pohl, “What Moves Players ? Visual Data Exploration of Twitter and Gameplay Data,” Proc. 2018 CHI Conf. Hum. Factors Comput. Syst. – CHI ’18, pp. 1–13, 2018.

[11]    L. S. Liu, J. Huh, T. Neogi, K. Inkpen, and W. Pratt, “Health vlogger-viewer interaction in chronic illness management,” Proc. SIGCHI Conf. Hum. Factors Comput. Syst. – CHI ’13, p. 49, 2013.

Author: Andrew Brown

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