We don’t often think about working on a computer
. It’s a word usually associated with
social activity—conjuring up images of dinner parties,
pithy remarks and tinkling wine glasses. But
interacting is precisely what we’re doing every time
we sit in front of our computer—that digital window
to the internet.
For many users, however, this interaction
between man and machine has always been an
uneasy one—and for some, an unnatural one. We’re
accustomed to interacting with other people on a
face-to-face basis because, as children, we were socialized
by our parents and in school. We were taught
proper behavior and how to play nice. And over the
years, with experience, we learned to deal with other
people, the effects our actions have on them and
their reactions to us. But occasionally, someone walks
by and hits us in the face with a lemon meringue pie
and we’re left stunned, not knowing what to do.
Not everyone is similarly accustomed and socialized
to dealing with technology. The internet has
evolved beyond a series of servers and workstations.
It has become a global community where millions of
users go to connect and interact with other people
and ideas through websites. But poor, technology-centered
design can negatively impact the quality of
this interaction, leaving that sour taste of lemons in
too many users’ mouths.
Defining Human-Computer Interaction
“Human-computer interaction is a discipline concerned with the design,
evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for
human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them.”
– Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Special Interest
Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI)
Note that the term “computer” in HCI can refer to any number of
technologies and media. When practitioners discuss HCI in website
design, they’re not talking about the computer that allows us to access
a website, but rather the website itself.
The goals of human-computer
There’s an unfortunate disconnect between how
humans naturally function and what a lot of technology
has delivered. The industry has made things
so complicated that words like intuitive, accessible
and user-friendly are bandied around as selling
points for technology. Developers and marketers
adorn their wares with these words like badges of
honor, using them to describe something as though
it were an extraordinary phenomenon, rather than a
matter of fact.
Human-computer interaction (HCI) practitioners
are dedicated to bridging this disconnect. They
seek to improve the relationship and interaction between human users and technological tools by
focusing on user-centered design.
“One goal [of HCI] is to study how people
interact with their environments—especially
those enhanced by digital technology,” explains
Dr. Erik Stolterman, professor and director of
Human-Computer Interaction Design at Indiana
University’s School of Informatics (http://hcid.informatics.indiana.edu) and author of the HCI
blog Transforming Grounds (http://transground.blogspot.com). “[The purpose] is to understand the
practicalities of these interactions and what this new
interactive reality does to people, how it changes
their lives and how it influences their life experiences.
Another goal is to find new ways of interaction,
and to teach it.”
Design should extend beyond the technology
and media that supports the digital community.
Users are not interacting with the medium; they’re
using it to interact with those on the other side of
the medium. “People are spending more and more
time interacting with the web, and it becomes their
lifeworld, a large part of their experienced reality. To
design this reality in a human-centered and morally
responsible way is a challenge that has to be considered
seriously,” says Stolterman.
Design for people, not technology
Technology needs to support us, to function as
an extension of our own innate abilities to accomplish
a task. Unfortunately, this human-computer
disconnect forces users to reconcile the way they
naturally work with how technology makes them
work—or, more cynically, how designers want
them to work.
The human-computer disconnect can be further
widened by the manner in which a website is
designed. There are far too many website creators
who get caught up in the glitz and glamour of what
web technology allows them to do. But designers
need to have a deeper understanding of the fact that
regardless of what they can technologically do with a
website, it should never take precedence over what
they must logically do with a website.
“Open your mind and realize that everyone is
not like you,” advises Donna Maurer (http://maadmob.net/donna/blog/), an information architect
and interaction designer who lectures and trains on
usability testing, accessibility, and web and interface
design. “The person who designs the website is not
necessarily the same person who uses the website.
A website designed by an egocentric designer will
always be less usable than one designed for a group
of real people. [Users] have very different backgrounds
in technology, which means they will have
different responses to a website. This can create a gap
between the designer’s ideas and the users’ understanding.
Respect other people, their skills, their
abilities and inabilities.”
It’s easy to see how problems can arise
when designers impose their will—through their
designs—on users. Designers should never seek
to alter the manner in which people work; rather
designers need to focus on learning new ways to
shape technology to conform to the way people
naturally work and think. It’s the technology that
must cater to people, not the other way around.
Designers can’t go about the day blaming users for
lack of technological sophistication.
“Humans are what they are,” explains
Stolterman, “and design has to deal with that.
Instead of saying that people don’t have enough
knowledge or skills, we could say that applications
are not sophisticated enough to handle the abundant
richness of human nature and its diversity.
There are never any disclaimers in design. You can’t
say, ‘This [would be] a good design if only I had
other users.’ A good design is centered on the people
who are supposed to use it.”
Making websites more human-friendly
Every human being is different, with his or her own
likes and dislikes, habits and perceptions. What’s
considered human-friendly to one person may not
be to another. This is what makes website design so
difficult. Designers are trying to use a vast, global
medium to accommodate all the minute tastes and
personal styles of individual users.
“I don’t think it’s possible to have a 100-percent
perfect website,” says Maurer. “There will always be
things that don’t work for some people, and there are
always people with completely unreasonable expectations.
Even though we are very different at a detailed
level, we have the same underlying brain structure
and goals. We can rely on a set of base physical and
cognitive abilities. But our experiences and knowledge
are different and are affected by our situation
and upbringing. This is why it is both easy and hard
to design for humans. That’s where user research is
important—learning about the actual people who
will use your website, what they want to do, how
they describe items and how they react to potential
designs. A human-friendly website must anticipate
what people intend on doing before they know that’s
what they want to do.”
The overall appearance and structure of a website—
typography, layout, color choices, navigation,
information architecture—communicates something
to users. Websites engage users’ visual senses first.
If designers fail to connect visually with their target
audience, users will easily lose interest and patience.
“People are almost always searching for experiences
that have a ‘flow-like’ quality,” says Stolterman.
“They do things on the web not because they like
browsing or searching, or because they enjoy interacting
with websites. They are looking for experiences,
such as learning, entertainment and communication.
When these experiences are interrupted by bad
design, people get frustrated and angry.”
In order to maximize user retention and form
a positive connection with users, website designers
and owners can employ simple techniques to make a
website more human-friendly:
1. Navigation must be self-explanatory. You should
never have to explicitly explain how your website’s
navigation works; it must be self-explanatory. If you
need to place verbal instruction such as click here or
click and drag for options, try again.
Navigation is the most functional component
of a website, because it’s the mechanism that ties one
piece of information to another—it should never
draw users’ attention away. The less a user thinks
about a website’s navigational system during a session,
the better job it has done.
2. Organize web content by context. The human
mind works linearly, so group related information
hierarchically, with general information appearing
on upper levels and more detailed information in
sublevels. Information should never be scattered
about or buried under various pages that don’t follow
the natural flow of the site’s navigational structure.
This forces users to navigate a roundabout
simply to form a single thought. There are enough
distractions on the web; don’t make matters worse
by creating them within your own website.
3. Avoid screen clutter. Are you paying a website
host by the page? No? Then why cover every inch of
screen real estate with content? At-a-glance content
absorption is preferred. Users should get an overall
impression of what any website page is about with
only a cursory glance and not have to study it. Most
people aren’t good at absorbing large amounts of
information at one time. It’s very taxing having to
wade through mounds of content on every page.
4. Stay consistent. Nothing will disorient a user
more than inconsistent design and navigational
structure. Designers should cater to users’ natural
abilities of recognition, rather than recollection.
“Things become intuitive as people make a connection
between their experience and what they
are seeing in front of them,” explains Maurer.
“Consistency and use of common patterns across
websites is a good thing; it helps people to quickly
understand what they can do with what is in front
5. Understand your audience. The internet is
made up of a highly diverse population. It’s nearly impossible to cater to everyone’s individual predilections
and idiosyncrasies, but it’s crucial to
know who your core audience is. You can’t make
a connection with those you don’t understand.
“Do as much as is humanly possible to understand
the users of your website; then design for them,”
advises Maurer. “Imagine a teen site using a visual
appearance appropriate to a government site, or
vice versa. The site won’t feel like it belongs to the
Try using common language instead of technical
jargon or obscure acronyms to avoid alienating anyone.
And—if resources permit—you can even put a
test group together to get feedback and suggestions.
6. Consider using a chatterbot. A virtual assistant,
or chatterbot, can help make interaction with a
website feel more like interacting with a real person.
Chatterbots have basic artificial intelligence capabilities
and can respond to common user questions.
Chatterbots often give those who aren’t technically
inclined a higher level of comfort—as opposed to
navigating a site to find answers—since the interaction
feels more like a one-to-one conversation.
7. Limit flashy, nonfunctional gimmicks. A site
can’t be so flashy as to distract users from the goal.
Sites need to be functional first and flashy second.
Unfortunately, because of designers’ enthusiasm for
web technologies, the latter can easily trump the
former. “I think we are still in an era when simplicity
and well-designed functionality is lacking,” admits
Stolterman. “Complexity is still the major ‘enemy’ of
8. Always acknowledge users’ e-mail. An e-mail
address is not a decorative website ornament. If you
don’t intend to respond to user e-mail, don’t put
an address on your website simply to have it there.
Not having an e-mail address on a website can be
a momentary annoyance for users, but putting an
e-mail address on a website and then not responding
to users who take the time to write will cause longterm
annoyance and even make them feel alienated
While it’s not always possible to answer everyone,
you should at the very least acknowledge users’
comments or questions to show there’s actually a real
person behind the website.
Bridging the great divide
Effective HCI design is part science and part art. It
is as much a study of human nature as design. There
is no magic formula to making a human-friendly
website, however, because the possibilities and
design options are as wide and varied as individual
tastes and backgrounds.
Good website designers create experiences for an
audience. They build websites that users can interact
with—not simply view. After all, users don’t sit in
front of their computers as bystanders and expect
miraculous things to happen before their eyes. The
quality of a website can be measured in users’ satisfaction
with this experience.
Always remember that we’re designing for
people, with technology. By applying user-centered
design principles, we’re not only helping users deal
with that pie in the face, we’re helping them avoid
the pie altogether.