Mark W. Newman

Assistant Professor Mark W. Newman of the School of Information

By Mark W. Newman

When the field of Human-Computer Interaction was born 30 years ago, computers were rare. Relatively few people even had access to them, and those who did used them to perform specific tasks, usually for hours on end. Today, nearly everybody in the developed world has access to computing technology in one form or another, and uses it for dozens of disparate activities throughout the day, often in short bursts.

The shift from thinking about interaction with computers as something we do sometimes, under special conditions, for special tasks, to thinking about interaction as something that we do continuously, everywhere, and in support of nearly everything we do, necessitates a profound shift in HCI practice. What does this mean for the next generation of HCI professionals?

Some recent technological developments suggest the need for new approaches.

Everywhere interaction

Wildly popular devices like the iPhone and the iPad, and video game controllers like the Kinect, are breaking the mold of how people interact with technology. Recently, HCI researchers have demonstrated technology that can turn virtually any physical object into an interactive surface, including even the human body. Computing ceases to be a special activity at this point, and becomes an intrinsic part of simply being in the world. Researchers like Paul Dourish have suggested that such embodied interactions require designers to become conversant with theories about how people exist and make meaning out of their physical and social environments — theories that derive from phenomenological philosophers like Martin Heidegger and environmental psychologists like James J. Gibson.

Context-aware systems

While computers offer new ways for us to interact, they are also becoming more proactive about interacting with us. Thanks to an ever-proliferating array of inexpensive sensors that inhabit our portable devices and built environments, our computing environments are able to observe our behaviors and preferences, and adapt their functionality accordingly. Designing systems to be “context-aware,” that is, to understand aspects of the physical and social context of their use, requires new skills and perspectives. Those systems must provide intelligible accounts of their behavior and take advantage of usersí peripheral attention. Designers must have new methods to prototype and test context-aware applications.

Product ecologies

Every system, from the smallest 99-cent app to the largest enterprise system, is embedded in a dizzying web of other systems, devices, people, and processes. With the increasing complexity of everyday personal computing environments — many of which contain multiple networked computing devices, dozens of networked services, and perhaps hundreds of individual applications — it is not enough to consider the interaction between a single user and a single piece of software in isolation. Jodi Forlizzi of Carnegie Mellon’s HCI Institute has proposed the notion of “Product Ecologies” as a new way for designers to think about and test how new systems fit into the technological, physical and social environments of their users.

Computing has become a pervasive part of nearly every aspect of human life. As HCI researchers and practitioners, we must work to transform the field to match these new realities, while continuing to deliver computing systems that enhance peopleís lives.