The Teeth, the Nuts, and the Nutcracker
Early this month, senior officials from our public funding organization visited our Technology Innovation Hub (TiH), under the aegis of IIT Mandi. The organization has been set up with a sharp vision to bring out the benefits of technology to the masses through scale and impact. The idea-to-execution is bridged through the anchor support provided by the public funding organization to each of the 25 TiHs within the select institutes in our country. This has been created with thought, care, precision, and focus, with each TiH handling a slice of the technology area.
This visit to our Innovation Hub was the first of its kind since its inception during the peak of the pandemic years. Events, important like these were swallowed by the pandemic or diminished as “virtual events.”
TiH at IIT Mandi has been given the mandate to bring forth the benefits of the gifts of technology in the seemingly esoteric yet refreshingly ubiquitous area of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). HCI has had a long history in a short span of time.
The Touch of HCI- the ease of interaction
Let me dwell on the topic of HCI to demystify it.
HCI was first conceived as the point (i.e., interface) at which input is received from the computer-user through the keyboard or mouse, and the computer puts out the information to the user through the computer screen. This interface still exists and is maturing further. Innovation in HCI has opened new channels, surfaces, and modalities making it a well-defined subject of technology.
Interdisciplinary, Interactive, and Intelligent remain the design principles of HCI while transcending technology areas as varied (and inter-connected) as Computer Science, Cognitive Science, and Industrial Design.
The interaction between Computers and Humans over the generations has been limited in time, quantity, and quality. The advances in HCI promise to leverage the complementarity of the limitations of humans with the capabilities of computers and bridge it through technological advancements.
The underpinnings of immensely deep layers of technology are purposefully designed to ease the interaction between humans and computers.
The lesson over lunch
The visit culminated in an intense 2-hour presentation, demonstration, and discussion, followed by lunch in honour of our esteemed guests.
The lunch was an invitingly sumptuous spread delivered in the sun-kissed afternoon of early December. The dining tables set on the brown grass carpeted by the twigs shed by the now barren trees, ringed by the magnificent Dhauladhar mountain range, vetted the appetite!
As we concluded the main course with the guests, dessert was to follow. Health-conscious as we all are in today’s time, most mentioned that they would skip the dessert offering. This elicited a statement that remained with me. One of our esteemed guests mentioned — “Bhagwan ney jisko chana Diya usko daant Nahin Diya? (The literal English translation is, “those who can afford nuts lack teeth to enjoy them,” a philosophical translation would mean “need” and “means” (or the resources to address the need) may not go hand in hand.
Mapping the corresponding limitations and capabilities
The human and the computer generally “do things,” but they do not necessarily do the “right things” from each other’s point of view.
Simply put, the end-user’s needs could be incompatible to be addressed through the developer’s (or engineer’s) model. Take the case of the TV remote which is small and cannot be held by my arthritic grandmother, here the end-user in her palm.
Looking back, HCI has evolved to be addressing the limitations of humans through the capabilities of the computer.
The Interaction between Humans and Computer- end-user hold the key
There are obvious differences between humans and computers (or machines at a broader level). The attempt of HCI is to ensure that they both complement each other and interact successfully. This is best done by engaging with end-users throughout the design process.
For example, assistive technologies involved in the design of a wheelchair for the paraplegic should engage with the users in defining the goal along with the corresponding optimal path to reach that goal. It is vital to find that balance between what would be ideal for the users to address their “needs” and what is feasible in terms of computing “resources,” or the means to address the needs.
The goal of HCI is to design, engineer, and develop usable, safe, and functional systems. To produce systems with good usability, engineers attempt to understand the factors that determine how people use technology. Engineers use tools, technologies, and techniques to build suitable systems and achieve efficient, effective, and safe interaction.
So prioritizing end-user’s needs is the key.
The user should not be expected to change her way to use the engineered system, instead, the system should be matched to the user’s needs. The user interaction is at its best when it is seamless.
HCI is concerned with making systems easy to learn, easy to remember, effective to use, safe to use, and enjoyable to use. No wonder, technology becomes incredibly useful when it is invisible — remember the advent of smart screens with soft keys?
The Smart Merger which brings HCI to life
Do the computers match the cognitive capabilities and the limitations of the users? Today the engineer’s model in designing the computer is influenced by the need to bring in a better user experience. Simple, clear, and easy to use with the goal to create that overall user experience.
The smart merger between computer science (hardware and software), cognitive science, and industrial design would result in the goal of the engineer’s model merging with the user’s model.
Peter Morville has so elegantly listed down as “…what makes for user experience.”
A good user experience makes the product or platform — useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible, and valuable.
These attributes bring HCI to life! As usability infuses life into HCI, in the process transforming itself into an interdisciplinary, interactive, and intelligent application.
The Concluding Note
As we were concluding the lunch session, we chanced upon a five-striped palm squirrel, scurrying away with a walnut “ergonomically” ensconced in its toothy mouth.
It left me to wonder, the nature’s creation of a squirrel. The strong incisors are built to chisel through the hard shell of a walnut.
Is God unfair to humans? “Bhagwan ney jisko chana Diya usko daant Nahin Diya?
No, not at all. We have been gifted to be resourceful enough.
In fact, have we not already designed the tool (the humble nutcracker) when it comes to cracking the hardest of the (wal)nuts? This tool has provided that Human-Machine Interface.
What God may not have bestowed upon us anatomically, could be attained through the marriage of human ingenuity and the computer as the resource! Hail the HCI!!
Published in Times of India, Wordly-Wise, Somjit Amrit, 26th Dec 2022