A short history of Human-Computer Interaction

Studies on HCI started in the mid-1980’s and the field therefore has a short history of little over 30 years now. I want to divide this his...

Studies on HCI started in the mid-1980’s and the field therefore has a short history of little over 30 years now. I want to divide this history into three stages.

The first stage was when studies focused on user interface (UI); elements that you can see with your eyes, hear with your ears, and feel with your hands. During this stage, it was important to design and evaluate the UI of a computer system so that ordinary users could perform work on their computers easily and conveniently. This is when the concept of usability received a lot of attention, and usability tests became an important job for HCI professionals.


Let’s think about the Model Human Processor (MHP), an important theory that represents this stage (Card et al. 1983). As the above image shows, there are three characteristics that define the MHP theory. Firstly, it’s very concrete. For instance, the theory calculates where the eye moves from one point to another to the tenth of a second. Secondly, it involves a single user. Instead of a computing environment that includes numerous users, this theory focuses on a single user’s view of the screen, touch of a button, and thought process. Thirdly, it focuses primarily on stationary computers. In other words, the first-stage HCI focused on how to provide a more easy and convenient means for a single user to use a computer on a fixed platform such as a desktop computer.

Studies that focus on the UI of a single user on a single screen clicking on a single button provide a very narrow perspective. However, there were firms that understood the strategic importance of HCI during this time. When I finished my studies in the US and came back to Korea in 1994, the first project that I was involved in was to design a website UI for a well-known daily newspaper. This media firm had a relatively low market share compared to other newspapers. This was also when Korea had just started implementing the internet, which meant that there were rarely any readers who consumed news online. Despite that, this media firm predicted that people would consume more news online rather than from print. On that premise I started creating a website that provided an easy and convenient way to view articles online. I remember the final presentation of this project very vividly. The firm’s CEO participated in person in the meeting and carefully observed and analyzed every design aspect meticulously over many hours. Back then, such projects usually only involved the deputy directors, not the CEOs. But the reason its CEO took such a meticulous approach was because he himself had decided that the experience of his readers were of utmost importance and that the web was the future. Today, this media firm has held a steady place among the major media firms in Korea.

In the second stage of HCI’s history, it moved on from what is visible with the eye to the interaction that enables users to activate something and react to it. Departing from the dimension of a mere visual expression, how a product or service functioned became important. And no longer was HCI confined to a stationary computer. Therefore, digital products that provided mobility were introduced, and the leading example of it was the mobile phone. Although the mobile phone has a smaller screen and body than that of a desktop computer, the hardware that makes up the mobile phone has a processor and a memory that far exceeds the capabilities of desktop computers from just a few years back. The mobile innovation that started to kick off in the late 1990’s strongly emphasized the importance of interaction. It became important to be able to conduct many actions and receive appropriate feedback under the constraint of a small screen and a limited number of buttons.

I particularly remember a project I conducted during this interaction stage called “D-Button,” as shown in image below. Back in those days before the smartphone, numerous studies were conducted on how to use feature phones efficiently. The D-Button was a project based on the idea of tiny thumbnail-sized LCD panels that fit in place of the hard key buttons of feature phones. The concept of this project was that when a user conducted an activity on the mobile phone other than dialing a number for a phone call, the dial pad hard keys would display buttons more appropriate for the task other than the conventional zero to nine, asterisk, and sharp keys. For example, the buttons would display photos when the user entered the photo gallery, and pressing on one of them would display the photo on the main screen. By providing a change in the method of interaction, the D-Button intended to provide a more efficient mobile experience.


The D-Button project received fairly good evaluations. A renowned magazine introduced the project’s results, and a partner firm supported my lab with research funding and worked together on a physical prototype. However, the hype only lasted for a short period of time. While we were discussing whether to implement the D-Button in an electronic manufacturer’s mobile phone, Apple’s iPhone was released. Instantly, our partner firm’s attitude changed. They felt that multiple LCD screens increased the risk of a faulty product, the manufacturing cost would increase, and that the design was actually pretty messy. My role was to defend this negative feedback, but in the end, an actual product never materialized despite a physical prototype being made.

There is one thing I learned from this experience: efficiency of interaction alone is not enough to make a product successful. Thinking solely in terms of efficiency, tiny LCD screens on hard keys could be more efficient than functions on a single panel like the iPhone. Nevertheless, what is the reason people favor the iPhone over the D-Button?

The reason is that people evaluate a product or service based on the entirety of their experience, not solely on interaction alone. I’m not the only person to have learned this lesson. With the release of the iPhone, HCI entered its third stage in its short history, the focus and importance of a UX.

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