Sunday, August 31, 2008

Common Ground: Defining HCI

Jason Grigely

Information as Thing
The reading of “Information as Thing” is an examination into what is information, and how we think of it, and interact with it. As we can see, information is capable of existing in three states, information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing. When contemplating each of their meaning, and where they belong, it seems to me, that there, in fact, an order of the three that generally follows: information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, information-as-process, and then finally information-as-thing.

In order for one to possess knowledge, in most cases there must be an inciting event, during which knowledge is gained, and the individual becomes informed (assuming the knowledge is not “a priori” and is gained empirically). Following the time by which the knowledge is acquired, and exists as information-as-knowledge, the persons whom experienced the inciting event and were capable of extracting respective meaning from the event possess it. Once the information is possessed in such a manner it becomes an idea, a thought, which may in turn lead to more knowledge, or the desire to share that knowledge with others. This is, once again, where the information becomes an information-as-process. In order to share their knowledge, the one possessing it must initiate another event intended to share said knowledge. One possibility for this is to transfer their information-as-knowledge to information-as-thing.

So what is information-as-thing? Well as we can see, it is much more than just an idea, or knowledge. It can be an event, an object, but really, I feel that it is more a part of information-as-process more so than I believe it is its own entity. An event, document, data, object, these are merely the means through which knowledge is shared, through either a physical, visual, or audible representation. Information-as-thing is not so much a state of information, but a conduit for information-as-process and information-as-knowledge, and the interchange between the two.

More interesting however, is the idea of information itself. The only state of information, as described in the reading, which can exist without the others, is information-as-process. An individual can be surrounded by objects and interactions, which have the potential to give them limitless knowledge about them and their surroundings. However, if that the observation is not made, how can it become their information-as-knowledge? Knowledge, is in fact, all around us, constantly waiting to be explored and understood. Immanuel Kant, a famous philosopher of the late 1700’s once said, "That all our knowledge begins with experience, there can be no doubt... But... it by no means follows that all arises out of experience." This, I believe assists in illustrating my point on knowledge, gained through experience. Yes, knowledge is gained through experience, but that does not mean that simply experiencing an event, do you gain knowledge of its meaning.

A History of HCI
Although the field of HCI feels at times like it is still its infancy, it in fact, directly followed our expanding use of electronic and computing devices. As one might expect, for many years, form followed function, as many times ease of use was sacrificed in order to first improve functionality. However, we can see, in examples such as vacuum tubes, which were easier to replace, thereby adding to functionality and ease of use. What we tend to see as HCI today, compared to its early beginnings makes me think of one thing: time is relative.

The expansion of the computing world is a truly remarkable thing. Moore’s law provides us with an explanation of exponential growth in technology. As amazing as this is, the technology is only as good as those who can make full use of its potential. This, in my opinion, is what HCI is all about. Facilitating the interaction between humans and computers, to allow both to operate at maximum efficiency. Thanks to genius research centers such as Xerox PARC, which is likely responsible for our modern dependence on GUI systems, the field of HCI has developed from improving systems in a manner such as where certain knobs and dials are placed, to the graphical styling and arrangement of visual objects on the system with which the user is interacting.

As I mentioned earlier, the study of HCI has reminded me of how time is relative. Its rapid evolution in comparison to other industries is truly remarkable. We are constantly learning new things and inventing new ways to interact with technology on a daily basis. What we know today is less than what we’ll know tomorrow, and certainly less than what we’ll know this time next year.

Understanding and Being
Our ability to learn and process knowledge is a subjective process, as hard as we might try to obtain objectivity. Is true objectivity even possible? Every time we retell an event, or teach others, or even just talk to others, it is always done so from our own perspective, even when we claim it to be objective. Does history really exist? Perhaps it does as we see it, but what has occurred can never again be observed in most cases, which as a result, leads to subjective reports and retellings. So is being objective when describing or explaining objects and events possible?

I found pages 34-36 of particular interest. Reflecting on similarly stated events that have occurred within my own life, and how so many times, these statements hold truth. Reading about them was an enlightening experience, and a chance to think about how these things have impacted others and myself in the past, I believe gave me a new personal perspective on just how difficult thinking on your feet can be in such situations.

Using Computers: A Direction for Design
One initial thought. I found it humorous that we read one of the first chapters of this book, and then the last. Moving on...
“Easy to learn”, “user friendly”, and “self-explaining”; honestly these terms genuinely upset me. As the chapter indicates, these terms are heavily overused. Often times, the products they are describing, are not “easy to learn”, “user friendly”, or “self-explaining”. In my personal experience, one of the following tends to happen. An advanced user such as myself is frustrated with the dumbed-down simplicity of the process involved with said product. On the other hand, take your average computer user, who often times, is still confused by this “easy to learn”, “user friendly”, and “self-explaining” product. In both cases, the experience leaves the user frustrated, and wanting to throw their computer out of a window.

As designers that assist in the interaction of users and technology, it is our duty to attempt to make those interactions as painless as possible. As mentioned in the reading, this means doing our best, to allow the functionality of the technology, to become secondary to the task it performs. The task that it is assisting in accomplishing should be the primary focus of the user, and as such, the experience the user has with technology, should take as little away from that focus as possible.

However, technology “solutions”, are not always such. Long-term, technology in many cases will assist in the increase of efficiency. However, as the result of interacting with new technology, there will always be a time in which there is some adjustment to this new “solution”, before its user can operate it to its full potential. Our job is to devise a design in an attempt to minimize such time.

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