How HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) Has Evolved Alongside Technology

How HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) Has Evolved Alongside Technology

Human-computer interaction has everything to do with the communication between humans and computers at its nucleus.

From the birth of the desktop computer in the 1980s to today’s smartphone, the study known as human-computer interaction (HCI) has evolved from a specialty area to a diversely layered network of tech professionals. Instead of merely focusing on computers as it once did, information technology as a whole is part and parcel with HCI.

In the beginning, the HCI field’s singular focus was fixed upon scientific testing. Now, HCI is part of the fabric of society. Many rely upon HCI for the purposes of everyday life and for solutions for worldwide problems.

Each step in the expansion of HCI as a discipline is important and unique in its own way and has led to an increasingly remarkable relationship between humans and computers. It has become so complex and far-reaching, that the disciplines of which it is comprised, are made up of their own litany of disciplines.

A Brief Time Lapse of HCI


Personal computing emerged in the late 70s, meaning casual users worldwide could access computers instead of just technology professionals and expert hobbyists. It had two main elements; personal software and personal computer platforms. While personal software included productivity applications (text editors, spreadsheets etc.) and computer games, personal computer platforms involved operating systems, programming languages, and hardware.

It was through this primitive era where the lack of computer usability became clear for the individuals wishing to use computers as tools. Still, casual computer users were stuck attempting to translate indistinguishable instructions and system dialogs.

Thankfully, the obstacles faced in personal computing coincided with the inception of cognitive sciences, which consisted of cognitive psychology, AI, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. One of the missions of the cognitive sciences was to interpret what is now known as cognitive engineering; a way to break down systematic and scientifically informed applications.

Fortuitously, in a time where user experience needed practical improvements, cognitive science blended science and engineering to help make HCI one of the first instances of cognitive engineering.


During this time, HCI practitioners engaged in the idea of building systems that were simple to learn and simple to use. However, desktops didn’t lend themselves to easy-usage when first introduced, despite undeniably powerful potential.

The desktop-folder metaphor was part of an initiative that associated mental models with computer usage. Mental models coexisted and flourished alongside human factors engineering, and the effective combination became an integral component of software development. Physical offices were mapped onto computer interfaces to illustrate the manner in which information was stored on desktops.

Another metaphor synonymous with 1980s design was Apple Macintosh’s signature “messy desk”. Scattered files and folders across the display surface proved a perfect developing ground for graphical user interfaces.

While unable to boast about the seamless usability of today’s modern personal computers, the “messy desktop” had users double-clicking, dragging windows, and getting lost in their desktop interfaces. The "messy desk" was a sterling advancement compared to Unix’s teletype metaphor, which was dependent on typing commands.

Improving usability was paramount during the 80s. Incredible strides were taken by aptly applying the data gathered based on the limits of users’ capabilities in regards to performing various tasks on a computer.

Cognitive walkthroughs, heuristic evaluations, and usability testing were all techniques conceived during the formative period of HCI, and are still utilized to this day. They established the importance of personal computing moving forward. Through intuitive system designs, HCI studies unshackled users from the confines of confusion with the new technology.

However, HCI practitioners would learn that the desktop metaphor would eventually be eclipsed, as icons displays were far too susceptible to clutter.

Unfortunately, the desktop metaphor becomes obsolete for users with hundreds if not thousands of personal files. Still, to this day, users are clicking icons. It's simply no longer a hegemonic design concept.


The 1990s saw the ascendancy of e-mail, where users started interacting with one another through computers and with the computer itself. The HCI community shifted its efforts primarily towards cognitive modeling, pivoting away from the interaction design of the previous decade. Since computers were now communication tools, mental models were no longer sufficient in helping grasp the bigger picture of computer-usage.

Efforts of the HCI community were being spent analyzing external influences and assessing the variance in interactions amongst differing tools and organizations.

Social and organizational computing was of the essence, particularly with the demand for communication and collaboration support from computers.

Looking to gather a framework for how interfaces affected behavior, the HCI community leveraged the expertise of sociology, anthropology, and psychological professionals. Through the insights garnered via the respective lenses of the three disciplines, the HCI community adapted the complexities of social behavior with human-computer interaction.

Throughout the 1990s, HCI produced a multitude of design communities. Initially a comprehensive acceptance of methods and techniques, this initiative mixed with monumental evolutions in user interface technologies. They took the of user interfaces and shifted towards graphical design and more diverse concepts of user experience. HCI still applies social sciences such as ethnography (the customs of individual peoples and cultures) to mold its inner workings. Via HCI’s advancements and adaptability, technologies are immersed in both knowledge sharing and communication, contributing to a fulfilled human experience through the facilitation of social activity.


Technology started a journey into a previously uncharted territory, affecting self-expression, self-reflection, and social consciousness. Technology developed to the point where individuals could remove themselves from social situations simply by attaching themselves to personal devices.

HCI practitioners needed to contemplate the ramifications and roles habit-forming technology should play in the lives of users, and evolved philosophically and ethically in their approach.

Value-driven design with the power to engage communities and sustain a positive change was of the utmost significance. A fundamental principle in HCI is to confront systematic issues by utilizing HCI’s core elements, technology, and design.

Executed holistically, design seemed to interweave seamlessly with increasingly complex interactions reaching from people to spaces to technologies. HCI experts sought a fulfilled human experience - enhanced recreation and exploration were at the crux of design.

The designs set to inspire users to interact with technology on their own terms while playing a pivotal part in personal growth and quality of life.

An Endless Network of Disciplines

Although there’s a community of HCI practitioners, technically there are no HCI professionals.

Throughout the 1980s, software tools, user interfaces, and cognitive sciences created a veritable smorgasbord of contrasting elements of HCI. Considering the advancements of technology, it’s no surprise that core HCI concepts and skills are even more separate and difficult to comprehend today. From user interface designers to UX designers, there are dozens of HCI academic programs seeking to educate a variety of professionals.

HCO sub-communities are also melting pots. As an example, ubiquitous computing both falls under the HCI, mobile computing, geospatial information systems, community informatics, and application infrastructures umbrellas, just to name a few.

Similar to many of HCI’s concepts, ubiquitous computing and HCI have their own separate paradigm. HCI is the name for a community of communities.

HCI brands “community of communities” as part of its definition, even acting as a means to organize conferences and journals. These communities are united by ambitions for greater analysis and usability and the continual advancements of novel technology and applications.

The HCI community is defined by the commitment these principles entail, as it has given HC the opportunity to go beyond the boundaries of disciplines and gain an understanding of the vast array of skills and concepts integral to technology development.

Starting as a small, singularly focused specialty area, HCI was factionary and simply attempting to establish what was considered an outlandish outlook on computing.

Conversely, HCI is now a diverse and eternally layered group, united by the constant need to adapt usability to the needs of the day, while adhering to the principles and philosophies of integrating commitment to value human activity and experience as the primary driver in technology.

Read below, for an examination of two disciplines that are both “different and the same” to HCI.

Ubiquitous Computing

Ubiquitous computing comprises the connection of electronic devices such as embedding microprocessors to convey information. It’s the framework where information processing reacts to activities and objects the moment they are encountered.

Also known as pervasive computing and ambient intelligence, ubiquitous computing produces connective smart products that simplify and unencumber the exchange of data.

Devices are always available and connected in ubiquitous computing. They learn by eliminating the difficulties associated with computing, boosting everyday efficiency by utilizing computing to better the daily pursuits of humans.

Here are some of the main elements of ubiquitous computing:

• Human factors and environments emphasized as opposed to computing environments.

• Affordable processors lessening the need for memory and storage

• A propensity for capturing real-time attributes

• Computing devices that are 100% connected and available at all times

• Big picture oriented with an importance placed on many-to-many relationships (versus one-to-one, or one-to-many relationships)

• Awareness of the spreading of information, knowledge production, as well as local/global, social/personal, public/private, and invisible/visible features

• Hinges upon connecting internet, wireless tech, and cutting-edge electronics

• Bolstered surveillance and limitations in user privacy since there are wearable tech that is always connected

• Throughout the evolution of technology, the reliability of equipment will be in a constant state of flux

Ubiquitous computing and HCI interlinked because both play a part in blending functions with the needs of common human practices of the day. Integral to these processes are the embodiment of these activities but also how they may be obstructed by contemporary infrastructures and tools.

HCI explores design spaces, aiming to discover new systems and devices by blending the evolutions of activity and artifacts.

Needs, wants and design visions are intrinsically displayed in human activities. Artifacts are created to fit these needs, but far eclipse simply “fitting” someone’s needs. Through the adaptation process of a new design, they offer innovative active and interactive opportunities.

Relationship with UX Design

HCI’s prevalent influence over User Experience (UX) design should be carefully examined.

While HCI has directly impacted UX design, they are not necessarily one and the same. Primarily centered around academics, the bulk of HCI’s efforts are spent accumulating hard scientific data and acquiring empirical knowledge of users through those findings. UX design is predicated upon industry needs, contributing to the construction of products and services such as smartphone applications.

Even with these differences, HCI offers UX designers an abundance of information and materials in the development of these products, keeping the two disciplines intertwined.

HCI’s all-encompassing umbrella touches so many topics but its academic influence means it is not as time sensitive as UX design. Thus, UX designers need to break the barriers of their industry in order to reap the benefits of HCI insights. With the resources HCI offers, UX designers are capable of executing the most effective designs for their users that can alter both the market and society as a whole.


Interactions between humans and computers are as complex as it is integral to the growth of society. HCI has aimed to reconcile and strengthen this relationship by constantly evolving as an academic field.

The humble beginnings of HCI saw a small subset of visionaries with a singular focus steadily immerse clunky desktops into everyday society. Now, HCI is an all-encompassing discipline with a seemingly eternal umbrella fitting communities upon communities of disciplines within its grasp.

By leveraging cognitive sciences, anthropology, psychology, and so many other valuable resources, human-computer interaction has sought to not only assist in human aspirations and exploration but influence them as well.

It's hard to say what's to come in the future of HCI, but its footprint is engrained in society that it may take a larger part in forming the future than one might think.

At this point, it’s fair to wonder what humans could ever do without HCI.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


Help us by spreading the word