Human-Computer Interaction

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Ben Cowan
Recorded: 08/04/2013
Broadcast: 15/04/2013

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: Today we are here with Ben Cowan, who is a Research Fellow in the School of Computer Science, here at the University of Birmingham. Hi, Ben.

Ben: Hi there. 

Sam: So Ben, your research interests are in something called ‘Human-Computer Interaction’, or HCI. Can you tell us a little about that?

Ben:  So I’m part of the Human-Computer Interaction Centre at the University of Birmingham and we look very much at how to design technologies to be better for people. So how we can design technology to not only change people’s behaviours or change what they’re doing or make them do better behaviours which is one of the future areas of HCI that we’re moving into, but also how we can design technologies that exist at the moment such as websites or even your apps that are on your phone, or even the way that your phone works for instance. How we can make them better for people and what they want to do with them and so how we can design those things better, those technologies better. But also part of my research looks very much at looking at the human side, so how the understanding of the human and how they interact with technology really allows us to design better technologies and really understand how technology changes us or augments certain cognitive processes or those sorts of things.  So there are many angles to human/computer interaction. I mean changing behaviours is one of them but making things more pleasurable and better for people in terms of technology is really our main aim and to understand why that’s the case. 

Sam: So it’s thinking with a psychological element to it, saying it’s all very well that this piece of technology can do five hundred things by the touch of a button but what does that mean for the user and how easy is it to use. 

Ben: Specifically what my research is looking at is very much the psychological angle on that.  I mean we have many people in our team who look at the design side, looking at the sociological side because a lot of computing is social now and so looking at all of these different angles and coming together and trying to design the best technology possible. There’s definitely a huge amount of push at the moment with new consumer technologies to have this voice enabled interaction and we’re moving very much away from what in the past was a very stilted interaction, so if you think about your bank systems you would have say a couple of words and they usually aren’t very good at recognition either, but at the moment what’s growing is a really sort of more natural interaction with the computer and that’s started with Siri and  that’s started with Google Now as well. You see the computer almost having a dialogue with you and you can use natural speech and it will comprehend it very well, but also the speech that comes back is quite natural so we’ve started to have a dialogue with the technology and so this is where the realms of science fiction I suppose can come in, because in the future there may be a chance of actually having quite natural interactions with computers vocally. Now part of that, and some of the research I do, is understanding the psycho-linguistics of that. So understanding what we can learn from human/human dialogue and looking at the phenomena in human/human dialogue and how we can apply that to human/computer dialogue and how design actually augments and changes that phenomena. So an example would be that we don’t tend to, in natural speech, we tend to align with each other. We tend to use the same words.  If I was describing a bus for instance, if you used the term ‘coach’, I would use the term ‘coach’ as well. So that’s called lexical alignment. Now we seem to be doing this with computers as well, but the design of them actually changes the way that we do that. So the fact that we think a computer is basic at understanding us, changes the way we behave vocally and so this is interesting because it gives us a window on how people perceive these systems and if they don’t perceive them as natural, they won’t behave naturally. So that’s a bit of what we are looking at and so to look at this phenomenon, and hopefully bring about quite a natural conversation with computers in the future. 

Sam: So it’s almost like the computer has to gain that respect from you.

Ben: Yes, completely. I mean it’s very much like that. If you have the idea that the computer can understand you, can understand different structures that you use, you tend to worry less about conforming to what it’s using linguistically. We have the idea that our perceptions actually change the way that we interact with people as well linguistically, but we are looking at whether that can apply to computer scenarios and what changes that in human/computer scenarios.

Sam: So one of the places where new interactive technologies are becoming really popular is museums and I guess that’s because it’s a good testing ground for this new technology?

Ben: Yeah, definitely. I mean the museums of the future will definitely have a lot more technology in them, using them to display certain exhibits. So at the moment we’ve been doing some work with Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries and there are plenty of other galleries in the UK who are looking at this option, looking at using touch table technologies and touch screens, so massive iPads on their sides effectively, looking to display exhibits on them, display photos, really get engaged in the content, get extra content from the pictures. So one of the things we’re looking at is how we get people to contribute to the content on these systems and how we get people to engage with them differently around a collaborative space.  So these tables, it literally just looks like a normal table you would see, that gives lots of possibilities in terms of people collaborating and looking at these exhibitions but also it gives lots of problems because if you’ve got lots and lots of people around, not everybody is going to want to pass things to people and, you know, sometimes people just want to look at their own little piece. There are lots of human/computer interaction issues about sharing content on these technologies but also how we can make the experience more personal. So there’s lots of work at the Heritage Hub at the University of Birmingham that we’re part of who are part of the HCI Centre and we do some research with, that really looks at how we can create a more individual experience from these museum exhibits. So an example would be to move the content onto your iPad or your iPhone so you can walk around and look at the content yourself but you have this hub of information within the museum exhibits. So you’re creating a personalised museum exhibition but the future may be more sort of engaging with the visitor, trying to get them to add content to the exhibitions rather than being sort of a more static exhibition.

Sam: So at the end of 2012, the Government had the Review for Government Digital Strategy and what does this mean for HCI and what was it about?

Ben: The main aim of that document is to try and move transactions online that we have with the Government, so things such as HMRC have already moved quite a lot of stuff online, but also looking at tax disc renewal, looking at when we go for a driving tests, all the admin being put on line. Trying to explore what services can be put online and which ones can’t. But also how those services needed to be designed. Now that’s a great thing for human/computer interaction.  The document suggests that they would like to put the users at the centre of this and that’s our major aim as a discipline, but hopefully there will be an element of user centred design going on in those systems. Now, that means these systems will have to satisfy usability requirements which are things like making it efficient to use for people, making it effective so people can actually do what they want to do, and also that they have a satisfying interaction with it as well, so they actually enjoy interacting with it as much as they need to.  I mean one of the dangers might be there’s a certain section of society that I do some research on, on looking at anxiety towards technology use. So there may be a certain section of society that may be a little bit anxious about using technologies for these services and the danger is that if lots the services that already exist there are taken away for digital alternatives they might be slightly ostracised from that. Now there needs to be a lot more research about what causes these anxieties and that’s what I’m doing at present, but also what design can do to help those anxieties. I mean it might be that people don’t use these services or it may be that people use the services and are quite stressed about using the services and that’s not particularly good if you’re wanting people to use those and you’re taking away the existing services that are there. Now I know the Government in the document do say that they will be doing their utmost to keep the existing services there already, so hopefully that will be a good thing and hopefully there will be channels that people who maybe aren’t very comfortable with technology are still able to use. And it’s not necessarily just age either that is the important factor with that anxiety, it’s mainly to do with previous experience that you’ve had with technology. If it’s been particularly bad then there’s some research that shows that actually it can lead to anxiety and further interactions. So that again comes back to us as Human Computer Interaction specialists.  We need to know how things are causing anxiety and to stop those experiences happening with new technologies.

Sam: The move for Government attitude on technology in public services is going to make things a lot better and it’s a positive progression.

Ben: Definitely, and I think that again, if they engage and we as a discipline and as practitioners, engage fully in the process, I think that we could have some really really world-class online systems. The problem at the moment is the Government have done not enough really to get involved in this but what they’ve also done is sometimes they’ve done it a little bit badly and I think part of that in my view is that they haven’t taken the user into consideration as much. So hopefully this new strategy will show a shift in viewpoint and hopefully keep human/computer interaction at its core. It’s the glue for everything to be put together with this strategy, in my view.

Sam: Ben Cowan, Research Fellow in Computer Science, thank you very much.

Ben:  Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.