Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) & User Experience (UX)

Whether we’re typing on a keyboard, swiping a smartphone, or asking a home speaker to play a favorite dance mix, we interact with computers and other types of technology every day. The study of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX) are two complementary aspects of these interactions. HCI has a history going back to the early days of the computer revolution, even before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates started to design the first operating systems for consumer use. UX is a more recent idea focusing on the practical application of HCI and has become synonymous with designing websites and apps to be easier to navigate and use.

As our interactions with computers and other types of technology expand, the study of both HCI and UX will be part of the future of computer science.

What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)?

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the study of how humans interface with computers and other types of technology. While initially concerned with computer science, HCI has expanded to cover a broader range of fields including non-technology fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, cultural anthropology and sociology, ergonomics, and visual design.

HCI tends to be more of an academic field, dealing in research and empirical understanding of how humans use and are affected by technology rather than in practice. As humans interact with technology in more and more aspects of their daily lives, the study of HCI has become increasingly more important.

What is User Experience (UX)?

The more practical and design-based aspects of HCI, which tend to be more customer-facing, fall into the field of user experience (UX). As the name suggests, UX focuses on how a user experiences their interaction with a type of technology. User experience designers follow a process that allows them to understand the key facets of that interaction:

  • Context of Use – These are the motivations and reasons for a user to interact with the technology.
  • User Requirements – These are the specifications users have to be able to achieve their goals when using technology (both hardware and software).
  • Design Aesthetics – These are the elements, like graphic design, typography, text, user workflows, audio design and ergonomics, that affect how the user interacts with the technology.

The UX process tends to be ongoing. As users interact with technology, the UX designer gains more insights that can be applied to the continuing development of the technology.

HCI and UX Fields

While HCI was considered academic and UX design-centric, the growth and importance of HCI and UX have expanded, requiring expertise from a growing list of disciplines. While the number of HCI- and UX-related job titles is quickly growing, here are some of the key HCI and UX career opportunities to consider:

  • Researcher – In this career, researchers use quantitative and qualitative methods to understand user behavior, motivations and pain points when interacting with technology. Researchers often come from fields including marketing, cognitive science, psychology, cultural anthropology, economics and library and information science.
  • Information Architect – These computer scientists use information science to structure how content is organized across a website, app or operating system. Information architects often help bridge the gap between the cognitive and the technological aspects of the user experience.
  • User Interface (UI) Developer – A UI developer creates the user interface for the technology. While the role started with either design or software development, UI development has become its own specialization. UI developers collaborate with graphic designers, content writers and software developers to create a cohesive user experience.
  • Cognitive Systems Engineer – These specialists develop the artificial intelligence/cognitive systems that allow computers to navigate the human-centric processes of learning and adapting, making reasoned decisions based on incomplete information, communicating with users and taking action, all while making the process comfortable to use and easy to interact with.
  • Accessibility Designer – These designers create user experiences that are accessible to as broad a range of individuals as possible. Accessibility designers look for ways to remove barriers to access for users across languages and cultures, users with cognitive, physical, auditory or visual impairments, as well as varying levels of education and technological literacy.

To see more job titles and learn more about working in HCI and UX, visit our careers page

Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience Industry Trends

Smartphones with touchscreens are one of the most ubiquitous examples of HCI and UX, but the field is likely to expand as new technology trends like these evolve over the next decade:

  • Voice Guided User Interface – As natural language processing (NLP) technology develops, we will interface more and more with the internet of things. Humans will be interacting with technology using only their voice for everything, from playing music on a home speaker to giving instructions to industrial robots.
  • Gesture Guided User Interface – We already use gestures like swipes, pinches and taps to navigate touchscreen computers. As technologies like gaze-tracking, gesture recognition, and brain waves interfaces develop, we may use gestures alone to play games, allow users with mobility issues to have more independence and guide robots to perform surgeries.
  • Virtual/Augmented Reality – Virtual reality headsets allow us to engage in truly immersive experiences. As the technology develops, we may perform more of our daily tasks using a headset instead of a laptop and keyboard. Augmented reality allows us to experience the world while assisted by technology. Instead of looking at the map on your phone while driving, an augmented reality display could project directions onto your windshield.
  • Wearables/Injectable Technology – Devices like smartwatches and fitness monitors allow us to track our vital signs, and technologies exist that allow diabetics to use devices embedded in their skin to monitor blood glucose. As medical technologies develop, more of these technologies will go a level deeper, being injected into the skin to monitor our health in more profound ways and even deliver treatments.

As the connection between humans and computers evolve beyond the keyboard and touchscreen, HCI and UX will be needed to create the user interfaces of the future. That could be why UX design as one of the top ten hard skills for 2019 and 2020 and anticipate it to be in demand for years to come.

Why Study Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience?

HCI/UX is an interdisciplinary study that requires an understanding of computer science as well as social sciences, humanities, business and other areas of expertise. HCI/UX students learn how to:

  • Use social, cognitive and data-driven research to understand the context of use and the user experience.
  • Design, prototype, engineer and test user interfaces to enhance usability.
  • Understand issues related to HCI and UX, including collaborative learning, social computing and the ethics of HCI and UX.

But perhaps the best description of why we study HCI and UX comes from Drexel alumnus Michael Dickard, PhD and Senior User Experience Researcher at Vanguard. According to Dickard: 

“It is important to keep humans at the center of the systems and technologies we build. In the past, and even now, many companies start with solutions – they focus on building tools and systems for themselves rather than focusing on the people who will use them. At Drexel, you not only get to learn about human-centered design and research, which underpins good HCI and UX, but you also learn to be critical and how to push back on dominant narratives and ways of thinking that might harm people.”

As the field continues to expand, expect students from disciplines outside of computer science or design to take an interest in HCI and UX. 

HCI and UX Graduate Programs at Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics

For professionals in many different disciplines, understanding HCI and UX can provide an advantage that can help them thrive in an increasingly competitive and interconnected world. Professionals in fields ranging from marketing to engineering who can bring these skills to their organization can also position themselves at the forefront of a rapidly growing field.

We understand that students may have varying levels of experience and training in information systems. That’s why our Master of Science in Information – Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience Major, is designed for students who want to gain a general understanding of HCI and UX in theory and practice, and students with software engineering, information systems or other types of computer science knowledge who are looking to refresh, update and improve their current skill set.

Students who are interested in learning about HCI and UX while focusing on a different aspect of computer science can also take advantage of our Graduate Minor in Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience, dual degree program or if they just want to learn more about the topic without pursuing a full master's degree, they can earn a Graduate Certificate In Human-Computer Interaction & User Experience.

Choose to study full-time, part-time, in-person or online. This flexibility lets you customize your degree program so you can focus on the areas of study that have the most bearing on your career path and area of interest.

Ready to take your career to the next level? Visit the Master of Science in Information – Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience Major program page.

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