User Interfaces:  Survey Information and Thoughts

Sims296a3: Impact of New Information Technology 
Anoop Sinha
9 May 1997
Final Project



Often it is hard to learn a new tool.  This is particularly the case in the complicated world of the computer where there are many different technologies (software tools) and many different ways to access them (different hardware and different screen layouts.)  Bridging the gap between the technology and the user -- making the technology easy to learn and easy to use -- is concern and the task of the "user interface."  From this report, I hope that the reader will receive information which puts computer user interfaces into perspective.  To receive that perspective, I  hope that you will get some picture of the philosophy, history, present and potential future forms of the computer user interface. 

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Not only is the computer and the interface to it becoming increasingly important in everyday life, but the computer provides a fertile, malleable ground for user interface design.  In the last decade or so, the most interesting user interface work has been in the human-computer interface (HCI) for computers.  Much work has gone into the development of user-friendly and easy-to-learn HCI, possibly because the computer user interface is malleable, partly because there is no final best computer user interface, and  largely because computers are being used everywhere.  Computers are an interesting case example for studying user interfaces for many reasons.  The computer is a very complicated object.  Computer scientists, essentially specialists, are needed to write programs for it and such programs are sophisticated and complicated, requiring complex tools and man hours of effort.  Furthermore the complication is not just in the end-user programs but also in the hardware that makes up a computer.  In fact the complication starts with the hardware!  For many computer companies, the user interface is icing on top of their primary concerns: getting the actual program or hardware to work.  Many computer companies' neglect the icing.  User interface design is an area which can add significant value to users of a particular technology.  Any tool that is easier to learn and use and extend and understand, will provide more value to its users. 

People have been looking at the problem of improving user interfaces for many years.  Not all of that work is entirely heuristic or fuzzy.  The military has done significant theoretical work in Human Factors theory to better codify and understand the principles that are important in user interface design. 

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Human Factors Theory: 

For a solid treatment of Human Factors theory, see   Human Factors finds its roots in the following fields, where the first three have been the biggest influence: Computer Science, Cognitive Psychology, Ergonomics and Human Factors, Engineering and Industrial Design, Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence.  Within Computer Science, Human Factors usually falls into the category of User Interface Design.  This is an appropriate name, since the field of HF is ultimately concerned with the user, enhancing the users' experience be it in productivity or understanding or capability.  The formal field of Human Factors begain in aviation where it became evident that human safety was at issue when pilots became too challenged by the design of their cockpits (see Human Factors Guide to Aviation,  The first identifiable work in the area of equipment design and human performance was done during world War II (Preece, Jenny.  A Guide to Usability: Human Factors in Computing, 14). This work was concerned primarily with eliminating certain accidents related to cockpit design and aircrew performance. In fact, much of the pioneering work related to equipment design, training, human performance under stress, vigilance, and other topics was conducted and published in the period following the war. 

Ergonomics was the word used in Europe to describe this field of study.  The original distinction between ergonomics (the word's Greek roots mean "the study of work") and human factors has gradually disappeared. The distinction was officially removed recently when the Human Factors Society changed its name to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (see The terms "human factors" and "ergonomics" are used interchangeably.  At present, Human Factors is a growing field, with new applications of Human Factors principles being developed often.  For computer applications, for instance, Human Factors is both part of the software engineering design cycle as well as part of the end user experience.  Design is also the appropriate work for mechanical design with many Industrial Design companies being started to design instruments and the physical form of products that appeal to the end users.  Human Factors also is used in the design of medical products and medical applications.  At present there are human factors specialists in each of these fields who can apply the principles and the interdisciplinary theory of human factors in analysis of a particular technology. 
cliff jumper

Here we see a person attempting to jump from one side of a cliff to the other. The challenge is proportional to the size of the gap between the two cliffs. The person is a user of a computer system. The user begins with Task Inception. This is the point where the user has decided to accomplish a task by using a computer system. The user faces the challenge of computer system in order to reach Task Completion. In an ideal system there would be no challenge; the user could accomplish the task without having any human factors agitated. Human Factors are the user limitations, for example users have limited patience, limited memory, and need analogies. In an ideal computer system there would be no challenge to  these factors, and thus the gap between Task Inception and Task Completion would go to zero. 

Identifying the Human Factors associated with a design is the most important thing an HCI practitioner can take into account when designing a system. The second most important thing that can be done is user testing: seeing if the user is able to effortlessly accomplish the intended task. These two principles are the most compelling ones in the design cycle. 

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Case Studies: 
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Ultimately user interfaces are concerned with how the user is able to access technology.  Technological innovations and sophistication might be underneath the interface, but the user interface ultimately gives that technology value. A technology is worthless unless users can use it!

User interfaces are often most effective when they are molded to the learning styles of the users under consideration.  They are generally best designed with constant feedback from actual users.  Since iteration is so important in user interface design, this brings up the interesting scenario. Perhaps the best user interfaces might be able to change themselves in response to user tendencies.  Many operating systems give this sort of option, letting the user change the colors and the shapes of certain icons and window appearance.  As computers get closer to understanding users, perhaps the computer can choose the interface automatically. At the minimum, it should be possible to present each user who sits down at a computer with a different user interface, based on customization files that the user can activate when logging into a certain location.  This kind of system should become increasingly common in networked computer environments where configuration files can be stored on the network. 

Thus, in the computer environment it is important to remember that it is readily possible to change user interfaces.  For some other interfaces, such as constructed buildings or structures or physical hardware, it takes tremendous effort to change the interface.  User interfaces for computers should always be viewed as dynamic.

On the flip side, users are generally quite malleable to certain user interfaces.  People find that they have to make some effort to learn any technology, and are generally willing to make that effort, especially if they have a need for that technology.  Different users find different ways to use certain technologies as well. Certainly it is nicer to be able to learn more quickly, but it is also true that many users will be fairly persistent and tolerate sub-optimal technology.  As technology becomes more familiar, by nature it becomes easier to use, even if it is difficult to use in the first place.  Any user of a technology who becomes trained in using it will generally find that it is easier to use than if he or she is not trained in using it. 

So this brings us to our final thought.  Interfaces should be designed so that they are easy to use, but they also should be designed so that they do not limit users.  A user is willing to learn from a user interface, and user interface designers should take advantage of that fact.  A computer interface is changeable and configurable and the designer should take advantage of that as well. The balance of complexity and clearness that is required is certainly difficult to achieve, and likely varies user by user.  But this is why user interfaces are difficult to design and so important to study and design carefully. 

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