Per Ola Kristensson | Blog

Other Stuff

What are the grand goals in HCI?

What are the grand goals in HCI? Do we have any grand goals at all? When you read HCI literature you certainly do not get the impression that some sort of grand goal of an ultimate user interface design was even considered by the authors. In fact, most papers I read do not even seem to have a clear idea of what to do next beyond the paper. They did something “novel” (meaning: not published in the HCI literature before; HCI researchers are notorious for not reading work in the neighboring fields of design, anthropology, comparative literature, psychology and engineering). Then they ran a study and published the results. Now they are doing something completely different… This widespread behavior is leading me to think there is no real progress in the field. Researchers just do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and hope something meaningful eventually comes out of it.

Most of my own work is engineering-focused. I am essentially creating new interfaces that optimize some measurable dependent variable (such as time, error, “insight”, etc.). In my specific work on text entry the primary goal is pretty obvious: I want to create text entry methods that let users write as fast as possible with few errors. Is this a grand goal in HCI then?

I have some reservations. First, HCI is much, much more than text entry. Even I do research in other sub-fields, such as visualization and decision theory. If you narrow down your research objective then sure, you can define a goal, but will it be a grand goal? Second, the above notion only captures the end goal. However, in my opinion, the research trajectory is as, if not more, important than the end goal. It is by repeated trial and error we learn the subtleties behind excellent user interface design. The end goal is fixed while the research trajectory is “elastic” and can be twisted and turned so that you can reach new goals based on it.

This reasoning leads me to think that perhaps my original question was asking the wrong question. Perhaps HCI is actually doing fine. Although the grand goals are hidden in the fog and I sometimes wonder if they exist.

2 Responses to “What are the grand goals in HCI?”

  1. Tessa Lau says:

    I think the lack of grand goals in HCI hurt us as a field. Contrast with AI, where the goal of human-level intelligence provides a mechanism for researchers to put their work into the broader context of advancing the field’s goals as a whole. Goals in AI are also easily stated, because there is a benchmark against they can be tested; for example, “build a human-level chess opponent”.

    Here is an interim goal for HCI (which, though not a grand goal, can fulfill part of its function): how can we design the interfaces that people will use to interact with computing devices 10 years from now?

    Yet even now, after many years of being in HCI, I still find myself inspired by the AI goals and still use them to drive my own research.

  2. admin says:

    Hi Tessa,

    Thanks for your post. I agree with you that if a field has a grand goal (like AI) it does help a field progress towards that goal.

    I also agree with you that the lack of grand goals hurt the HCI field. I suspect people have their own personal research goals (at least I hope they do). However, since these goals are not clearly articulated they cannot be properly embraced or critiqued by other researchers. This leads to inefficiency and confusion in the system. On the other hand, it also encourages diversity.

    I like your comment on being inspired by AI goals. I think I myself am heavily inspired by goals in cognitive science.

Leave a Reply