HCI, Cognitive Psychology, and Integrating the Spectrum of Disabilities

by Joseph Koivisto

The field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is the study of techniques and methodologies related to the ways in which human users interact with computer systems via software, hardware, displays, and tautological metaphors employed in programming and design.

Something like this, only a little better.

According to Ebert, Gershon, & van der Veer (2012), HCI directly engages with elements of cognitive psychology insomuch as elements of HCI evinced in system development facilitate the user’s ability to internalize information, make decisions, effectively interact with the computer, and experience the wide range of affective responses that are elicited by info systems. By properly applying psychological concepts to HCI activities, system developers can help support the encoding of information in the users mind. Similarly, Ferriera and Pithan (2005) document how the application of HCI concepts directly influence user’s emotional engagement with their information seeking practices. The use of information systems can positively or negatively influence affective experience, a major part of Kuhlthau’s Information Seeking Process. As Kuhlthau has described in her theoretical model, user affective experience can disincline users to continue seeking information (or using information systems) based on the positive or negative emotional reinforcement that occurs during the use of given system.

The considerations the psychological ramifications of system development and the emotional experiences that occur during information system usage, practitioners of HCI-centric system design (also known as human-centric design) must be sure to take a holistic view of users when developing systems: the user as a thinking, feel, experiencing individual who has responses that are informed by thoughts, past experiences, and emotive states.

Gupta (2012) writes about the variety of approaches to HCI and the future developments that will impact the information system landscape. One of the more interesting concepts presented in his article is the development of multi-modal HCI (MMHCI), an interaction approach that employs a variety of interaction methods such as visual-, audio-, and sensor-based system interactions. As computers develop and new system interaction avenues become technically and economically feasible, a greater level of accessibility will be afforded to computer users who have traditionally been shut out from use. In particular, increased MMHCI will open up new doors of computer engagement to users whose disabilities have not yet been accounted for through conventional accessibility platforms.

What is extremely interesting about the marrying of these three perspectives (i.e. the cognitive psychological impacts of HCI design; the affective experience of users; and the MMHCI implications for users with disabilities) is that there will need to be new approaches to all three when facing issues of disabled users and their cognitive and emotional experiences of computer usage. MMHCI stands to facilitate computer usage among new segments of users with disabilities. Ranging from physical disabilities to cognitive disabilities, user populations – while not new to computer usage – will experience new levels of system accessibility that directly addresses their specific needs and HCI requirements. Audio recognition software allows for real-time captioning of motion pictures; better voice recognition applications will alleviate the need for traditional input devices for those incapable of using a keyboard or mouse; and more.

However, HCI does not begin and end with the translation of user need to computer action. As was mentioned in Ebert, Gershon, & van der Veer (2012) and Ferriera & Pithan (2005), emotive and psychological experiences are deeply engaged with HCI concepts. This means that as we move to adopt HCI concepts for users with disabilities, we must remain conscious of their psychological and emotive needs. This may take many forms and will require a great deal of engagement with user groups to ensure that systems are being properly tailored to the real needs of users and not merely those that we perceive. For example, does the voice style, gender, and speed of a speech system have an impact on the cognitive experience of blind computer users? Another concern may be the emotional experience of using voice recognition software as an input device: does the system’s sensitivity and accuracy generate emotional responses in users and if so, what can be done to promote a positive emotional experience, one free from the stress and anxiety associated with system failure or unresponsiveness?

Additional disabilities will require an even greater degree of consideration when applying HCI concepts. For users with intellectual or learning disabilities, how can HCI improve their usage experience? For users with a wide spectrum of disorders – including, but not limited to, dyslexia, Downs syndrome, autism-spectrum disorders, and more – specialized HCI tailoring can now be accomplished to a greater degree than has ever before been possible. In this regard, system development can pay particular attention to the individual cognitive requirements and affective needs of users with disorders that have been traditionally underserved by the computer industry. While this may seem like a daunting task at this point, the future development of computer technology and cognitive psychological research will better enable system developers to meet these needs. However, we must ensure that we remain ever conscious of the human-centered design models that will enable system development to meet these needs, lest we become too mired in the techno-centric design approach.

The future of HCI research holds a great deal of promise for developing systems that will benefit those who have been traditionally underserved by the computer industry, information systems, and information professionals. As we move forward into a new era of system capability, we must all do our part to learn more about how to better serve disabled patrons by applying HCI methodology and practice in ways that have not been explored before. Opportunities for greater interdisciplinary participation with psychology professionals and researchers will arise, and we should do our best to seize on these opportunities whenever possible. By actively engaging with the future of HCI, we can help to hasten its arrival.

Articles Cited

Ebert, A., Gershon, D. & van der Veer, G. (2012). Human-computer interaction: Introduction and overview. Künstliche Intelligenz, 26(2). 121-126.

Ferreira, S. & Pithan, D. (2005). Usability of digital libraries: A study based on the areas of information science and human-computer-interaction. OCLC Systems &   Services, 21(4). 311-323.

Gupta, R. (2012). Human computer interaction – A modern overview. International Journal of Computer Technology & Applications, 3(5). 1736-1740.