Defining HCI: Meditations on Human Factors

Sine Qua Non

Sine Qua Non - Without Which it Could Not Be

One of my ‘A History of HCI in 15 Papers’

The January 2010 issue of Interacting with Computers (Volume 22 Issue 1 / is a Festschrift Special Issue for John Long. This is a special issue dedicated to John  because,  as the editors (Alistair Sutcliffe and Ann Blandford) say:

John Long is one of the founders of our discipline in the UK and contributed significantly to the emergence of HCI in the international arena.

In this case, the issue makes up a Festschrift edition in honour of Long’s contribution to Human Computer Interaction and the science of design more broadly, and these papers [2, 3] make extensive reference to Long and Dowell’s 1989 paper [1] to motivate their arguments and contextualise the emergent HCI domain.

Both papers [2, 3] make some reference to the positivist / anti-positivist debate which I don’t really want to discuss further, I expect you’ll know where you stand on this subject and you’ll need to read both papers to fully understand the arguments and issues. Safe to say, that the writing of these paper will be affected by the authors view on it, and so will this post – so in the interests of full disclosure I’m a positivist, in the style of Hawking and Dawkins, if I’m anything.

Now from my reading, Carroll [2] seems to be and anti-positivist who see’s the craft based design world as the one which has contributed most to the HCI domain. I’m not particularly sympathetic to this view and I don’t share Carroll’s thoughts that:

Craft innovations drive HCI science… Throughout the history of HCI the truly game changing innovations have tended to be craft-based. The pivotal design concept of direct manipulation, and the early scientific accounts of it are a case in point.

Dix [3] on the other hand, doesn’t have such a single case argument; indeed Dix sees HCI:

For the researcher this formative creation of an experimental prototype is NOT the research itself, but merely the preparation for the research; and for the practitioner the understanding they gain is primarily in order to design better systems now, not establish fundamental knowledge for 10 or 20 years’ time. I usually distinguish between HCI as an academic discipline and HCI as a design discipline. The latter concerns using skills, knowledge and processes in the production of devices, software and other artefacts that in some way influence human interactions with computers (or more generally technology). The former, HCI as an academic discipline, is the study of situations involving people and technology (note, the series name of the British HCI conference), the design practices involved in such situations, and tools and techniques that are or can be used in either.

I really like this view but I’d go one further – certainly to make the definition relevant to my own work – and add to the research definition:

or the behavioural and cognitive aspects of human experience which can only, or more easily, be facilitated by the interaction of people and technology.

So why does any of this matter? It seems to me that all disciplines must at any-time be able to share a common understanding of what they are and what their purpose is. Only then can we understand how they affect other domains, where they lay in those domains, and what there contributions are. HCI is a very young discipline with a high degree of cross-disciplinary effort, and outcomes both in terms of research and practice. If we cannot define ourselves then what chance of making a case for fundamental research funding, for HCI training and education, or for shared definitions understanding and knowledge , do we have?


  1. Long, John and Dowell, John (1989). Conceptions of the discipline of HCI: craft, applied science, and engineering Proceedings of the fifth conference of the British Computer Society, Human-Computer Interaction Specialist Group on People and computers V, 1 (1), 9-32 : 10.2277/0521384303
  2. Carroll, J. (2010). Conceptualizing a possible discipline of human–computer interaction Interacting with Computers, 22 (1), 3-12 DOI: 10.1016/j.intcom.2009.11.008
  3. Dix, A. (2010). Human–computer interaction: A stable discipline, a nascent science, and the growth of the long tail Interacting with Computers, 22 (1), 13-27 DOI: 10.1016/j.intcom.2009.11.007

The last two papers [2, 3] are published within the official publication of the British Computer Society, ‘Interacting with Computers’ (Volume 22, Issue 1, Pages 1-74, January 2010), which has an Impact Factor of 1.103 1.698 and a running 5-Year Impact Factor of 1.174 1.911 as of 2009 (thanks to Markel Vigo for updating me on these).


3 thoughts on “Defining HCI: Meditations on Human Factors

  1. Pingback: Single User Studies Considered Useful « Thinking Out Loud…

  2. Pingback: Of Chocolate and Human Factors « Thinking Out Loud…

  3. Pingback: A History of HCI in 15 Papers | Thinking Out Loud…

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