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Title: Is HCI still necessary, still new in the 21st century?
Is HCI, as a distinct subject, a pressure group that has now outlived its moment of utility? Two broad classes of pressure suggest this: the relentless march of technology that seems to change the relationships of humans to computers: mobile computing, multimedia, affective, wearable, invisible computing, etc. It's not HCI (except in the sense of IO technology) that matters. On the other hand, a user-centered as opposed to that gadget-centred, attitude may argue that it never was the interface that needed designing for the user, but the whole system. Once this message has been absorbed and the transitional period of applying bandaids to the user interface was passed, then HCI would be unnecessary and user-centered design would be the software engineering orthodoxy for all designs. Recent debates in the UK about the best way to organise undergraduate training in HCI has also shown this spectrum of approaches.
The persistent argument against both these attacks is that the real business of HCI research is to discover and articulate abstract principles that are valid across changes in technology and context (e.g. the different techniques needed for high and low bandwidth user interface links, pace in interaction, consistency, developing theories of interactivity, the mutual interaction of context and reference, designing for error recovery, designing for learning by exploration, etc.). We may however discern a steady shift in the type of such principles that are emerging as most important. Firstly, often the key issues turn out to be those of human-human interaction: e.g. CSCW, privacy, educational applications. These are often areas not well understood in advance by other disciplines, and advances in technology and HCI have depended upon creating new understanding of the relevant human-human interactivity. Secondly, there still seems to be too much techno-centrism, and too seldom do designers or researchers focus clearly on the fact that the best systems come from synergies: not from pushing either human or machine to their limits, but on finding designs that make the most of both, combining them in ways that overcome the weaknesses of each by themselves. For instance, retail call centres are very big business in a newly evolved configuration that crucially relies on both human and computer, yet they are not hyped in the way that novel seeming technology is (e.g. E-commerce). But applying this paradigm in a new context (an undergraduate teaching lab) brought immediate success.
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