Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) User Experience (UX) topic overview/definition

What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)?

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is a field of study focusing on the design of computer technology and, in particular, the interaction between humans (the users) and computers. It encompasses multiple disciplines, such as computer science, cognitive science, and human-factors engineering. While initially concerned with computers, HCI has since expanded to cover almost all forms of information technology design.

HCI emerged in the 1980s. It was the crucial instrument in popularizing the idea that the interaction between a computer and the user should resemble a human-to-human, open-ended dialogue. It initially focused on using knowledge in cognitive and computer sciences to improve the usability of computers (i.e., concentrating on how easy computers are to learn and use). However, since then—and thanks to the advent of technologies such as the Internet and the smartphone—it has steadily encompassed more fields (including information visualization, social computing, etc.). The relevance of HCI in the 21st century is particularly apparent in the breakthrough of new modes of interactivity, namely voice user interfaces (VUIs).

In many ways, HCI was the forerunner that would grow to become what we now call “User Experience (UX) Design.” Despite that, some differences persist between HCI and UX design. Practitioners of HCI tend to be more academically focused, and are involved in scientific research and developing empirical understandings of users. UX designers, on the other hand, tend to be industry-focused, and most UX designers are involved in building a product or service—for example, a smartphone app or a website. Regardless of this difference, the practical considerations for products that UX designers concern themselves with have direct links to the findings of HCI specialists about the mindsets of users. Due to this, there is little point in separating these realms to any great extent.

Literature on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Featured article

A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction

A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction

Human Computer Interaction is the academic discipline that most of us think of as UI design. It focuses on the way that interactions between human beings and computers interact to ever increasing levels of both complexity and simplicity.

It’s perhaps easy to see that until the mid to late 1970s that this discipline wasn’t particularly important. The few people who had access to computers were academics or professionals with a few incredibly dedicated (and wealthy) hobbyists thrown into the mix. Without a broad base of users; it wasn’t necessary to focus on how those users interacted with computers – they just made do with whatever was to hand or created what they needed themselves.

It’s a Very New Discipline

Then with the dawn of personal computing; the flood gates opened. The masses wanted computing and they didn’t want to go through complicated rigmarole to do what they wanted with a computer. They weren’t prepared to build and program their own joysticks for the games they bought, they didn’t expect to design the mouse before they could use a word processor and so on…

Cognitive Sciences

Luckily, for the masses, there was a discipline waiting in the wings to help with the tasks that lay ahead. Cognitive sciences (a broad and heady mix which includes psychology, language, artificial intelligence,

philosophy and even anthropology) had been making steady progress during the 1970s and by the end of the decade they were ready to help articulate the systems and science required to develop user interfaces that worked for the masses.


This is known as “cognitive engineering” e.g. building things that work with our thoughts. And once again the engineering discipline had also come on leaps and bounds during the 1970s in order to support this change. In aviation, for example, engineering had already started to simplify the user interface of complex airplanes. It was natural for some of this work to move into the UI field for computing devices.


It’s also important to recognize the challenge of documenting these developments. New systematic approaches needed to be taken in order to record developments and to share these with other practitioners of the new discipline worldwide. There really is, after all, no advantage in reinventing the mouse over and over again.

John Carroll the Edward Frymoyer Chair Professor of Information Sciences and Technology at the Pennsylvania State University says that the discipline of Human Computer Interaction was born (or perhaps “emerged” is a better word) in 1980 as all these separate disciplines began to realign around a single objective; making computing easier for the masses.

You can read the full text of John’s book on Human Computer Interaction here on the IDF website. It’s completely free to read online and our members can also download a free copy to their preferred e-book reader.

Header Image: Author//Copyright holder: Glasbergen. Copyright terms and licence: All rights reserved. Img

Imgs: Cognitive Science, Robotics, Diagram

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Learn more about Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

Take a deep dive into Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) with our course Human-Computer Interaction.

Interactions between computers and humans should be as intuitive as conversations between two humans—and yet many products and services fail to achieve this. So, what do you need to know so as to create an intuitive user experience? Human psychology? Emotional design? Specialized design processes? The answer is, of course, all of the above, and this course will cover them all.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is about understanding what it means to be a user of a computer (which is more complicated than it sounds), and therefore how to create related products and services that work seamlessly. It’s an important skill to master, because it gives any company the perspective and knowledge needed to build products that work more efficiently and therefore sell better. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the Computer and IT occupation to grow by 12% from 2014–2024, faster than the average for all occupations. This goes to show the immense demand in the market for professionals equipped with the right computer and IT skills.

This course provides a comprehensive introduction and deep dive into HCI, so you can create designs that provide outstanding user experiences. Whether you are a newcomer to the subject of HCI or a professional, by the end of the course you will have a deep understanding of what it means to be a user and how to implement user-centered design for the best possible results.

This course is based on in-depth videos created by the amazing Alan Dix. You'll be in great company with this renowned professor from Lancaster University, a specialist in HCI and co-author of the classic textbook, Human-Computer Interaction.

All literature

Human Computer Interaction - brief intro

Ch 2: Human Computer Interaction - brief intro

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is an area of research and practice that emerged in the early 1980s, initially as a specialty area in computer science embracing cognitive science and human factors engineering. HCI has expanded rapidly and steadily for three decades, attracting professionals from many other disciplines and incorporating diverse ...

Book chapter
Data Visualization for Human Perception

Ch 35: Data Visualization for Human Perception

Data visualization is the graphical display of abstract information for two purposes: sense-making (also called data analysis) and communication. Important stories live in our data and data visualization is a powerful means to discover and understand these stories, and then to present them to others. The information is abstract in that it descri...

Book chapter
Interaction Design - brief intro

Ch 1: Interaction Design - brief intro

The aim of the following chapter is to provide an introductory overview of the concept and the field of interaction design, loosely grounded in historical developments. This encyclopedia covers the full gamut of human-computer interaction (HCI), and it should be noted that interaction design covers only a part of the HCI field. My intention here...

Book chapter

Ch 30: Personas

The persona method has developed from being a method for IT system development to being used in many other contexts, including development of products, marketing, planning of communication, and service design. Despite the fact that the method has existed since the late 1990s, there is still no clear definition of what the method encompasses. Com...

Book chapter
Usability Evaluation

Ch 15: Usability Evaluation

Put simply, usability evaluation assesses the extent to which an interactive system is easy and pleasant to use. Things aren’t this simple at all though, but let’s start by considering the following propositions about usability evaluation: Usability is an inherent measurable property of all interactive digital technologies Human-Computer I...

Book chapter

Ch 44: Affordances

44.1 AbstractThe concept of affordances originates from ecological psychology; it was proposed by James Gibson (1977, 1979) to denote action possibilities provided to the actor by the environment. In the late 1980s Norman (1988) suggested that affordances be taken advantage of in design. The suggestion strongly resonated with designers’ concern...

Book chapter
Visual Aesthetics

Ch 19: Visual Aesthetics

Visual aesthetics, as discussed in this chapter, refers to the beauty or the pleasing appearance of things. We discuss the importance of visual aesthetics in the context of interactive systems and products, present how it has been studied in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and suggest directions for future work in this field. 19...

Book chapter
Contextual Design

Ch 8: Contextual Design

Contextual Design is a structured, well-defined user-centered design process that provides methods to collect data about users in the field, interpret and consolidate that data in a structured way, use the data to create and prototype product and service concepts, and iteratively test and refine those concepts with users. This is ...

Book chapter
Disruptive Innovation

Ch 17: Disruptive Innovation

A disruptive technology or disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect. Altho...

Book chapter
Activity Theory

Ch 16: Activity Theory

Foreword: Why activity theory? This chapter is about a theory that was developed decades ago. Some of the basic ideas of the theory were formulated before the word "computer" was ever invented. Then why does the Encyclopaedia of Human-Computer Interaction feature a chapter on the theory? In other words, Why activity theory? The question c...

Book chapter
Visual Representation

Ch 5: Visual Representation

How can you design computer displays that are as meaningful as possible to human viewers? Answering this question requires understanding of visual representation - the principles by which markings on a surface are made and interpreted. The analysis in this article addresses the most important principles of visual representation for screen design...

Book chapter
Wearable Computing

Ch 23: Wearable Computing

Wearable computing is the study or practice of inventing, designing, building, or using miniature body-borne computational and sensory devices. Wearable computers may be worn under, over, or in clothing, or may also be themselves clothes (i.e. "Smart Clothing" (Mann, 1996a)). 23.1 23.1 Bearable ComputingThe field of wearable computing, however,...

Book chapter
3D User Interfaces

Ch 32: 3D User Interfaces

Ever since the advent of the computer mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI) based on the Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointer (WIMP) paradigm, people have asked what the next paradigm shift in user interfaces will be (van Dam, 1997; Rekimoto, 1998). Mouse-based GUIs have proven remarkably flexible, robust, and general, but we are finally se...

Book chapter
Requirements Engineering

Ch 13: Requirements Engineering

Requirements Engineering is, as its name suggests, the engineering discipline of establishing user requirements and specifying software systems. There are many definitions of Requirements Engineering (Zave, 1995); however, they all share the idea that requirements involves finding out what people want from a computer system, and understanding wh...

Book chapter
End-User Development

Ch 10: End-User Development

Computer users have rapidly increased in both number and diversity (Scaffidi et al 2005). They include managers, accountants, engineers, home makers, teachers, scientists, health care workers, insurance adjusters, salesmen, and administrative assistants. Many of these people work on tasks that rapidly vary on a yearly, monthly, or even daily bas...

Book chapter
Context-Aware Computing

Ch 14: Context-Aware Computing

A tablet computer switching the orientation of the screen, maps orienting themselves with the user’s current orientation and adapting the zoom level to the current speed, and switching on the backlight of the phone when used in the dark are examples of computers that are aware of their environment and their context of use. Less than 10 years ago...

Book chapter
Human-Robot Interaction

Ch 38: Human-Robot Interaction

This chapter introduces and critically reflects upon some key challenges and open issues in Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) research. The chapter emphasizes that in order to tackle these challenges, both the user-centred and the robotics-centred aspects of HRI need to be addressed. The synthetic nature of HRI is highlighted and discussed in the co...

Book chapter
Card Sorting

Ch 22: Card Sorting

The term card sorting applies to a wide variety of activities involving the grouping and/or naming of objects or concepts. These may be represented on physical cards; virtual cards on computer screens; or photos in either physical or computer form. Occasionally, objects themselves may be sorted. The results can be expressed in a number of ways, ...

Book chapter
Socio-Technical System Design

Ch 24: Socio-Technical System Design

A socio-technical system (STS) is a social system operating on a technical base, e.g. email, chat, bulletin boards, blogs, Wikipedia, E-Bay, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Hundreds of millions of people use them every day, but how do they work? More importantly, can they be designed? If socio-technical systems are social and technical, how is co...

Book chapter
Social Computing

Ch 4: Social Computing

As humans we are fundamentally social creatures. For most people an ordinary day is filled with social interaction. We converse with our family and friends. We talk with our co-workers as we carry out our work. We engage in routine exchanges with familiar strangers at the bus stop and in the grocery store. This social interaction is not just tal...

Book chapter