Lessons from HCI Classics

Posted on January 6, 2011


Recently I’ve been reading what the HCI people I know called ‘classics’, including several titles such as:

As an IR graduate student who have mostly known the world of retrieval models and TREC-style evaluations, these books help me understand the cognitive characteristics of a user, and how a computer system should be designed to be usable and useful.

Don Norman’s book provide the viewpoint that a user interface is a representation of given task, and argues that it should have the following characteristics to be considered ideal:

  • Capture important features of the represented world while ignoring the irrelevant
  • Is appropriate for the person, enhancing the process of interpretation
  • Is appropriate for the task, enhancing the ability to make judgments,  to discover relevant regularities and structures

Also, the book introduces two kinds of cognition as follows:

  • Experiential mode leads to a state in which we perceive and react to the events around us, efficiently and effortlessly. This is the mode of expert behavior, being a key component of efficient performance.
  • Reflective mode is that of comparison and contrast, of thought, of decision making. this is the mode that leads to new ideas, novel responses.

This distinction is useful in designing cognitive artifacts because tools for experiential mode behavior should not require reflection (e.g. the design of interface for everyday use should feel natural). Also,since effective reflection requires some structure and organization, tools for reflection should support comparison, exploration, and problem solving.

Jef Raskin’s book starts by defining ‘The Human Interface’, which has the following characteristics:

  • It is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties.
  • It should not waste your time or require you to do more work than is strictly necessary.
  • Users should set the pace of an interaction. (e.g. Users should not be kept waiting unnecessarily)

It is interesting to note that Jef Raskin’s book introduces similar concept of cognitive consciousness and cognitive unconsciousness, which roughly correspond to the idea of Reflective mode and Experiential mode. Any sequence of actions that a user perform repeatedly will become automatic eventually, moving the user from the realm of cognitive consciousness to cognitive unconsciousness.

Given this, he says, one mandate as designers is to create interfaces that do not allow habits to cause problems for the user. For instance, any confirmation step that elicits a fixed response soon becomes useless because the user will develop an automatic response to that.

Jef’s books include many other useful pieces of advice for user interface designers. While Wikipedia article of the book has a brief summary, just to quote a few here:

  • We must take into account common factors first we can deal with the differences among individual humans. (don’t try personalization before getting the basic interface right
  • Once the product’s task is known, design the interface first; then implement to the interface design
  • Attention to detail is crucial for keep user engaged.
  • Users should be focusing on the task, not the system

I strongly recommend reading these books for anyone designing an interface that should be used by humans.

Any other recommendations for IR students who’s getting into the field of HCI?

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