A master’s degree in human-computer interaction, one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, is a different type of computer-focused graduate program. Instead of emphasizing what can be done with the software or hardware of computerized technologies, human-computer interaction, or HCI, focuses on the relationships between human users and computer technology. Successful interactions between humans and computers require at least some degree of intuitive design, as well as an understanding of human behavior. Students of this interdisciplinary program can pursue many possible career paths, including roles in the practice of human-computer interaction and in research.
A Focus on the User, Not Just the Technology
Even the most cutting-edge technological innovations mean little if the people who need to use them can’t figure out how to do so. This focus on the user’s needs and capabilities is one of the major foundations of human-computer interaction.
HCI is, in some ways, a field that emphasizes accessibility. It may be difficult to imagine in the modern era of smartphones, smartwatches and smart homes, but computer technology wasn’t always meant for everyone to use and enjoy. The expansion of computer technology into virtually every aspect of modern life has drastically changed the identity of the end-fusers of computers since the 1970s. In a comparably short time, things changed from computer usage being largely restricted to professionals in the field who had special training in computers to being present in all environments, for all purposes and all audiences. Now that personal computing has come so far and seeped into everyday life, the technology itself needs to be accessible for those audiences.
To this end, a major focus of the field of human-computer interaction is user experience, sometimes abbreviated as UX. Providing a great, intuitive user experience means thinking about the context in which the user is interacting with the technology and what the user needs from the technology. Another part of creating the right user experience is considering how the design and display of the technology work to create a seamless, intuitive use.
The field of HCI encompasses websites, wearable technology, smartphones and other types of computer hardware and software.
An Interdisciplinary Area of Study and Work
When you go to graduate school for human-computer interaction, you should expect to take classes in interdisciplinary subjects of study. Computer science is part of the HCI curriculum, of course, but so are other topics. Expect to take some coursework in psychology, such as psychological statistics, cognitive psychology, human abilities and engineering psychology.
Industrial design is another possible area of study to include, such as human-centered design, visualizing communication for interaction, interface prototyping and web design accessibility. Some degree programs in human-computer interaction may offer students the opportunity to specialize their studies in areas such as digital media and interactive computing, as well as to take specialized coursework in health informatics and video game design.
Different HCI programs encompass different subject areas in the curriculum, but cognitive science, ergonomics, sociology, linguistics and cultural anthropology are all possible areas of study you might have the option to explore.
An Array of Careers in Research and Professional Practice
In the discipline of human-computer interaction, careers are available in the research aspect of the field as well as in practice. Researchers working on HCI have to draw on both qualitative and quantitative research methods in their quest to better understand the motivations behind user behavior and the challenges people face when interacting with computers. Their findings contribute to a varied assortment of fields that include psychology, cognitive science, economics, marketing and even library science.
If you’re more interested in the practice-oriented career paths of HCI, you might wind up working in a role like user interface developer, accessibility designer, or cognitive systems engineer. Different roles in the human-computer interaction occupations emphasize different aspects of the field. For example, accessibility designers focus on crafting a technical experience that is easy to use even for users who speak different languages and are at different levels of cognitive development. Cognitive systems engineers are more closely connected to the artificial intelligence that powers computer technology.
Graduates of a human-computer interaction program can seek more traditional computer science jobs, such as information architect. With an HCI background, you might focus on strategically structuring computer-based information for the most intuitive user experience.