The human in HCI: What you can learn from the Bard (and others)

Authors: Uday Gajendar
Posted: Tue, July 16, 2013 - 4:32:37

How does one account for the human within human-computer interaction? One approach historically embodied by the HCI field is firmly reductionist, a distillation of functional entities in which a human comprises "information processing systems" and "decision-making agents." It has a quantitative outlook with scientific rigor and statistical significance of data to ensure accurate validations of hypotheses. This grounds everyone in rational discourse and technical conclusions. And it's absolutely important and useful, just not entirely sufficient, IMHO. 

If we are to improve the human condition via well-designed technologies (computers, devices, systems), we must somehow grok the, well, human condition! This requires an empathetic, holistic outlook on the whole of humans (i.e., people) in all their glory of promise and gory flaws. This is why I always recommend reading Shakespeare and philosophy.

Wait, what? Indeed, I've found you can learn more about people and their messy challenges from literary texts representing culture and humanities than from typical HCI textbooks. While that info is great as a reference desk (just like pharmacology classifications are useful on a doctor's desk), you gotta get deep into the messiness that make up a person's life: emotions, dreams, motives, beliefs, flaws, hopes, fears, ideals. A doctor takes time to get to know their patients’ personal and family histories, as well as their habits and stories of life. It's not just charming bedside manner, it's about developing a holistic view toward making better diagnoses that are supportive of patients’ well-being, so they can (as the Kaiser ad says) thrive. 

So what of these literary authors and what can HCI professionals learn from them? 

Literature: Shakespeare. You can't beat the Bard himself, right? The maestro of Elizabethan theater captured and chronicled the messy affairs of the day with wit and eloquence in his staged plays, both tragedies and comedies. Each delved deep into critical human emotions, exploring and exposing people as flawed and hapless, yet striving for somewhat misguided noble aims. Hamlet exposed woeful anxiety ("To be, or not to be…"). Macbeth, ruthless ambition. King Lear, frail sense of half-witted ego and treacherous legacy. Meanwhile A Midsummer Night's Dream cleverly dwells on fantasy, hope, childlike dreams that persist into adulthood (much like Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland centuries later). If you want to dig into what makes us all tick, read Shakespeare or watch his plays performed in the park (for free). 

Philosophy: Nietzsche. Actually Plato and Socrates are better places to start, but philosophy in general is the quest to ask "Why?" to discover the underpinnings for human thought and values. Far from fanciful daydreaming (that's just daydreaming, really), philosophy offers a tough, persistent, skeptical analysis of purposes and values, and how they influence our daily lives. Plato and Socrates represent the Classical ideals of understanding reality through dialogue and storytelling, by direct observation of people in context. Nietzsche applied a grittier lens that involved intense examination of how to become a stronger, life-fulfilling person, in full existential vigor, willing you to power and achievement. Sartre and Camus continued this theme with writings on our need to act to fully give meaning to our lives, to be fully human engaged in daily life.

Fine Art: Picasso. Or Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, and countless other artists deemed somewhat "mad" for their times. Each one interpreted reality in different ways, conveying their visions with special techniques of painting (the medium truly is the message) and illuminating various "truths" about the nature of everyday life, with atmosphere and conviction. Each of their works was a reflection of the zeitgeist of the era (discovery of x-rays and quantum mechanics, new forms of light and photography, theories about cultural layers to reality) and was a response of emotional value: mood, tone, voice. They were trying to capture the emotional tones of an era, the broader spirit of the people, which we ourselves may not be attuned to. As the famous saying goes, art tells beautiful lies to reveal a deeper truth. It's all subjective, but also a deeply emotional expression of human conditions.

What's the result after spending time indulging in such topics? A greater cultural appreciation for the human aspect that HCI professionals are working to support. If you want to improve the human condition, you have to strive to understand it at a human level of abstraction and messiness. This appreciation yields a deeper sense for the motives for how and why people are the way they are. Sure you can (and should) perform scientific experiments validating finite measurements for benchmarking, etc. But as Steve Jobs said, it's at the intersection of liberal arts and technology where we create something that makes our hearts sing. 

Tapping into the poetry and emotion of what makes us all human is an essential part of that process of making HCI really H - C - I, from human-computer interaction toward human-condition improvement.

Posted in: on Tue, July 16, 2013 - 4:32:37

Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar is Director of User Experience at CloudPhysics, focused on bringing beauty and soul to Big Data for virtualized datacenters.
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