HCI versus Interaction Design

I was working with a masters student in CMU’s Interaction Design program today, and afterward we got into a lively discussion about the distinctions between ID and HCI.

One of the few things we agreed on: HCI and ID use similar methodologies to learn about users, including both qualitative and quantitative studies.

There were many more things that we did not agree on. I found it particularly interesting to hear her perspective because given her background, I had expected her to have a good understanding of what HCI “is all about.” However, she presented several misconceptions which are, if anything, even more prevalent in the greater design and technology communities. Some examples:

  • Misconception 1: Although user research methodologies may be similar, HCI and ID use them for different reasons. ID is all about designing a “complete user experience,” while HCI is completely centered on coming up with technical solutions. My response to that is– how can we come up with a useful, usable, and pleasant technology system without actually looking at the complete user experience? The “solution” might look like a piece of technology, but behind that are serious considerations about our users and their behaviors, values, aspirations, and more. Technology is just a medium through which a better user experience can be achieved– just as in ID, it is the way that people choose to use that technology that really defines their experience.
  • Misconception 2: People who study HCI are simply UI designers for the desktop/mobile/web. Take a walk through the HCI labs at CMU and you will see how absolutely untrue this is. HCI strives to push the limits. The beauty of technology is that it makes anything possible. As HCI practitioners, we are not boxed into using one certain type of media– we can explore any number of new ideas. We can combine virtual and real-world elements into new creations that have all sorts of unique affordances. UI design is just some small part of this, and when there are so many new types of interfaces, even UI design itself can be an incredibly immense area to explore.
  • Misconception 3: ID is about people-to-people interaction. HCI is not because it’s limited to technology. This statement troubles me because it implies that HCI is solely about having people interact with computers. This is a gross misconception– it pains me to know that people think of HCI as just finding ways to redesign the Photoshop UI. HCI is about creating technology that enables. As to what sorts of interactions it enables, well, this could really be anything– how people interact with each other (instant messaging, Facebook, etc.), how they behave within their environment (GPS, wearable computing), how they understand themselves (online identity building, methods of self-recording), and so on– the possibilities are endless. Although I can’t profess to know much about the specifics of ID, I would imagine that they pitch a similar platform of the possibilities that their field encompasses. And I am sure that many ID projects have a strong technology component, simply because technology is so prevalent in every aspect of life. Design someone’s experience as they walk through a museum, and you need to be aware that viewers are probably carrying cell phones with them. How can you completely disregard a potential distractor (or opportunity!) like this if you claim that you are designing a true space of possibility?

All-in-all, it was very interesting to see what sorts of misconceptions are associated with HCI. Why does someone in ID have such a restricted view of HCI, even though the two disciplines have so much overlap? I wonder if some of it has to do from the courses that we take and the deliverables involved. I suspect that if she were to read some HCI research papers or attend and HCI conference, she would realize that the distinction is not quite as strong as she originally thought. Classroom deliverables aside, our goals are the same: to improve the lives of our end users.