Product designers, meet your new friend, HCI

Introducing HCI to Product designers

In high school, my life revolved around music. I played drums in a punk band, spent hours at the mall in FYE listening to albums (remember FYE?), and went to local shows at dumpy music venues every weekend. Even though I loved music, I would have stayed in a music rut without my friend Taylor. Taylor had a knack for discovering artists. He was constantly exposing me to new bands and styles and letting me borrow albums. ‘Kyle, I know you love The Mars Volta. But, you gotta listen to this band I just discovered, ‘The Fall of Troy.’

We all have that friend. The friend who introduces us to experiences or opportunities we didn’t know existed. Without that friend, we would be closed off to things that have broadened our perspectives.

I want to be that friend to you today. If you haven’t met, I want to introduce you to a field of study that many designers may not know well.

Product Designers, I’d like to introduce you to HCI.

What is HCI?

“HCI (Human–computer interaction) is research in the design and the use of computer technology, which focuses on the interfaces between people (users) and computers. HCI researchers observe the ways humans interact with computers and design technologies that allow humans to interact with computers in novel ways. A device that allows interaction between human being and a computer is known as a “Human-computer Interface (HCI).”’ - Reference Wikipedia

HCI is a field of study. Most HCI researchers study under an academic umbrella, but a handful of private research labs exist. “HCI research inherited a tradition from the natural sciences — the quest to discover general rules that predict how humans behave.” Source. This history influences how HCI researchers practice, document, and distribute their research.

Things move fast in the software industry. I don’t believe I’m the only one with a built-up narrative that academia wasn’t moving fast enough to keep up with technology. However, after reading HCI research, I realized how valuable and relevant this work is. My ignorance of HCI was blocking me from many resources. HCI research is both fascinating and thorough. The concepts studied go beyond the fleeting trends of a current development cycle and dig into the behavioral underpinnings of how we interact with computers.

Why product designers should care about HCI

Corporate research tends to focus on understanding specific use cases and needs of a particular product. Product-specific research is vital for building products that users find valuable, but it doesn’t expose design practitioners to higher-level observations around underlying behavior.

As a designer, I’ve discovered that reading HCI research has filled in my foundational gaps. I work at a tech company that builds creative tools for visual developers. I’ve been part of countless research studies directly tied to our product, customers, and their use cases. But this HCI paper: “Strategies in Creative Professionals’ Use of Digital Tools Across Domains” broadened my perspective on how users interact with creative tools holistically. The research gave me a new lens to think through when approaching my day-to-day work.

Reading HCI research has expanded my thinking about designing for human-computer interaction. I believe this has made me a much better designer.

Ways to dig in

How academia delivers information differs from how many web industry practitioners provide information. Often the research is published as an academic paper accessible in PDF form.

How do you find HCI research papers?

Google Scholar. Google has a specific search product solely focused on discovering academic papers. Start by typing “HCI” into scholar.google.com.

Follow people immersed in HCI

Remember my friend Taylor? Find a Taylor. I have started listening to the podcast Metamuse. The hosts Adam Wiggins and Mark McGranaghan are cofounders of Muse, which was spun out of a research lab that the two founded: Ink & Switch. These two have been the professional versions of my High School friend Taylor. Their podcast constantly introduces me to new concepts and leaders in the space.

To get started, I recommend listening to episode 6 Human-Computer Interaction.

By no means am I claiming to be an expert in HCI, but diving into the research papers produced by many smart folks has been formative for my design practice.

If anything, I hope this post piques your curiosity and prompts you to dip your toes into the findings the HCI field has documented.

Some interesting reading to get you started:

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—@kylelambert