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Human-Computer Interaction and the Growing Role of Social Context

by Janette Bradley

From its inception, the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has focused on ease of use as a primary determinant for user acceptance of computer applications. However, the ever increasing role that computer applications play in all phases of knowledge work has led to the call to broaden the scope of HCI beyond the traditional measures of ease of use and consider all aspects of the usersí social and organizational context. While ease of use still plays a central role, factors such as compatibility with an individualís work style, impact on social and organizational norms, overall usefulness and relative advantage all need to be considered when evaluating an information technology (IT) product.

Consideration of these issues is even more important when the IT product is presented as a replacement for an existing product that is integral to the foundations of a social system. An excellent example is the introduction of electronic, scholarly journals. The scholarly journal plays a central role in the community of scholars and over the past few decades, a set of social and organizational norms surrounding these journals has evolved. Recent research has shown that those organizations wishing to deploy an electronic scholarly journal should consider expanding their user evaluation process beyond ease of use to include these social issues.

The new model of HCI research, which includes the userís social and organizational context, brings research in HCI closer to research which focuses on the adoption of technology innovations. The theory concerning individual adoption and diffusion of innovations through a social system provides a general framework for examining user attitudes toward using a technology-based innovation. Unlike the traditional models in HCI, which focused primarily on the characteristics that tapped the userís objective performance with the tool and the userís subjective perception of ease of use, the model of adoption presented by E. M. Rogers in his 1995 book, Diffusion of Innovations, provides a more complex picture of the technology adoption process. (See Figure 1.) This model is one of the most widely tested and cited models of adoption, and it has been found to be an effective framework for research on the adoption of a variety of innovations.

Rogersí general model of innovation adoption can be used as the basis for the development of a model for the study of HCI in a broader social context. Using the process surrounding the adoption of a scholarly electronic journal as an example, we see that potential users of a scholarly electronic journal must not only change how they interact with journals, but also must make adjustments to a set of cultural and social norms concerning their accustomed scholarly communication. For both academicians and practitioners, these norms have developed over centuries and play an important role in making decisions about the quality and reliability of a journal.

The introduction of electronic versions of scholarly research journals complicates the process by introducing a new interface. Users can no longer count on the centuries of cultural expectations (and perhaps decades of individual learning) that surround their use of paper documents to guide them in their interaction with the new electronic medium. D.A. Norman, one of the pioneers of HCI, explained in his article, Cognitive Artifacts, when computers stand between, they act as an intermediary, requiring that the user be proficient in both the task domain and with the intermediary (the computer). In as much as operations required of the intermediary are in addition to and orthogonal to the task, they can add to the overall complexity, even if that was not the intention of the designer. (In Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface, edited by J.M. Carroll, p. 331) The first refereed electronic journals were launched in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These journals were, in general, failures, and the complexity of interaction that Norman writes of contributed to their failure. However, the primary reason for the failure was that the use of electronic media for formal scholarly communication had not been approved by the larger social system. This lack of approval meant that few researchers were willing to risk having their work ignored or dismissed as low quality because of the format of publication.

The designers of the first electronic journals approached their task from a purely rational and objective point of view. They identified two problems with scholarly communications systems and believed electronic transmission would be the solution to these problems:

Although the early electronic journals met these objectives, they still failed. The important issue overlooked by the designers was that, from a social reference perspective, an individualís decision to use a given technology is not driven only by considerations of efficiency. Even though the early electronic journal designers attempted to meet efficiency criteria, it was the social aspects of the scholarly culture that ultimately interfered with widespread adoption of those early electronic journals.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the early electronic journal designers did not attend to the social context in their designs, because the focus of HCI in the early 1980s was very much on the individualís interactions with the computer. A quotation from The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction by Card, Moran and Newell (1983) illustrates this orientation: ďThe psychology of human-computer interface is generally individual psychology: the study of a human behaving within a non-human environment (though, interestingly, interacting with another active agent)Ē (p. 14).

The focus on tools or artifacts, as Norman called them, and the idea that HCI was a study that focused only on the individualís task-based interaction is indicative of the task-based orientation of HCI at the time.

In summary, today there is a clear movement, both in cognitive psychology and HCI, to move beyond artificial checklists to analyses that offer the opportunity to consider the role of organizational environments and social norms. This stream of HCI research emphasizes awareness of the social dimensions that lie beyond the boundary of HCI at the task level. For those pursuing this research area, the key to designing more effective computer applications is to begin the design process with both an understanding of the social context and of how individuals perceive their roles, tasks and tools within that context. With this broader perspective, systems are more likely to meet the true requirements for successful human-computer interaction.


Janette Bradley is with axsWave Software, Inc. and can be reached through the Web site at www.axswave.com/janette, by phone at 972/492-6517 or by fax at 972/492-3999.

Additional Resources

For those interested in examining IT innovations utilizing instruments that go beyond ease of use:
http://www.axswave.com/janette/dissertation