Title: How Can We Do More Than Study Computer-Based Media?:
The Human Factors Approach to Communication Research and Design
Author: Frank Biocca
Keywords: human-computer interaction, human factors, communication design,
Abstract: Communication technology is entering a period of rapid and sustained
change. Communication channels are becoming almost as pliable as messages. The
article suggests that communication researchers should consider more active
participation in the design of new human-computer interfaces. To this end, the
article introduces the notion of a _human factors_ approach to communication
"In order to reconquer the machine and subdue it to human purposes, one
must first understand it and assimilate it. So far we have embraced the
machine without fully understanding it." (Mumford, 1934, p. 334).
"In order to understand the phenomena surrounding a new technology, we
must open the question of design - the interaction between understanding and
creation." (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 4)
Communication research seems forever ordained to reconsider the means of
communication, the machinery with which we create meaning, the copper and fiber-
optic cables that increasingly tie our minds together. As a field, we have
emotions about communication technology, especially new communication
technologies (e.g., Carey & Quirk, 1988; Pool, 1983; Dizard, 1990; Slack, 1984;
Slack & Fejes, 1987; Williams, 1984, 1988). We tend to view new technologies
through utopian or dystopic lenses. We either breathlessly proclaim new worlds
freedoms or like chastened Cassandras chant dark prophesies of a corporate
future. According to Russ Neuman of MIT, "There's a natural instinct to see
a revolution or a conspiracy in every technology that comes down the pike"
1988, p. 15). Communication technology is a puzzle we can't quite figure out;
we're not sure we can see the full pattern or that we have all the pieces.
For the most part, our research on communication technology <1> has
been framed in very specific ways. We have studied communication technologies
trace their "evolution," to spot "trends," to "critique them," or to "warn of
effects." We have tried to use them to persuade, educate, or liberate, or
them with public policy. For the most part, we are spectators of the long march
communication technology. In this article I would like to highlight a slightly
different approach to media technology, one that attempts, in the words of Lewis
Mumford, to "subdue it to human purposes."
I am not proposing another "paradigm," "method," or "school." But this
article is motivated by an awareness that the evolution of communication
technologies is offering a critical - can I bring myself to write historic -
for communication researchers to shape the channels of human communication. In
this article I want to explore an interdisciplinary approach to the enduring
of communication technology, one that might attempt to maximize the human and
social value of new communication technologies and of communication in general.
To use an existing term, I will refer to the human factors approach to
communication research and design. I borrow the term, human factors, from a
and growing interdisciplinary community of researchers drawn mostly from the
intersection of engineering, computer science, psychology, and anthropology
Baecker & Buston, 1987; Hancock, 1987; Rubenstein & Hersh, 1984; Slavendy,
1987; Wickens, 1984; Woodson, 1981). Borrowing a term is often dangerous. It
may carry with it some unwanted baggage. I will probably not be able to avoid
problem here. But like other examples of paradigmatic appropriation (Kuhn,
1967), I hope to begin the process of tailoring the term for communication
in the course of this article.
In the fields of engineering, computer science, and psychology the words
"human factors" refer to important aspects of human performance, behavior, and
desire that must be considered in the design of any machine, hardware, program,
information system. For example, interdisciplinary teams of engineers, computer
scientists, and psychologists are concerned with human factors when designing a
new communication interface, or, more generally, human-computer interaction
(Biocca, 1992b; Card, Moran, & Newell, 1983; Laurel, 1990, 1991; Long &
Whitefield, 1990; Rubenstein & Hersh, 1984; Shneiderman, 1990; Vassilou, 1984).
Increasingly, communication researchers <2> are participating in
teams and using their knowledge of human communication to engage in discourse on
the design of these new technologies (e.g., Biocca & Levy, forthcoming; Biocca &
Watt, forthcoming; Fish, Kraut, Root, & Rice, 1992; Heeter, 1992; Meyer,
Applewhite, & Biocca, 1992; Nilan, 1992). Looking back at communication
research, it is possible to identify a number of studies that appear to share
the assumptions of the human factors approach without necessarily using the
human factors. <3>
Of all technologies, communication technologies provide the greatest human
factors challenges. It is interesting to note that the very word technology is a
of the Greek word techne for "art, craft" and the word logos meaning "word,
speech." There may be something essentially different about considering human
factors in the design of communication technology - systems that are true to the
early Greek sense and improve the craft and art of making signs, words, and
More than just architectural or engineering design, communication systems
both mind and body into simulations of physical and social reality - to borrow
emerging term, into virtual realities.
In some ways, the human factors approach to communication may signal a
return to synergy of true interdisciplinary work that seemed to permeate much of
communication research at its birth (e.g., Cherry, 1957). With the help of
as diverse as computer scientists, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores (1987),
the social communication philosopher, Jurgen Habermas (1981a,b), I hope to
out as best I can some of the most visible formations that are emerging in the
changing landscape of communication research.
CAN MEDIA BECOME AS PLIABLE AS MESSAGES?:
THE OPPORTUNITIES OF COMPUTER-BASED MEDIA
It is evident that something new is happening in human communication...
The name doesn't matter. What matters is that every major development in
human communication has begun with a major new development in
communication technology. (Schramm, 1988, p. 341)
For 50 years mass communication research has developed in an environment
of relatively stable media technologies. A father of the field, Wilbur Schramm,
there in the first decade, and he sensed a change near the end of his last
The mass media interfaces of books, newspapers, radio, and television remained
relatively unchanged from the late 40's to the 90's. Of course, some technical
innovations were diffused along the way: frequency modulation (FM), stereo,
TV, etc. But, for the most part, technological innovation did not radically
"face" of our media interfaces. Messages were placed in optional "delivery"
channels. Media evolved slowly. Most research, especially experimental and
research, focused mostly on those elements of the media that was most pliable
changeable, media messages (Biocca & Bleske, forthcoming).
Will developments in computer interfaces make media as pliable as
messages? The diffusion of computers and the integration of microchips in
appliances such as television sets, VCR's, cars, etc., is making computing
- to use an industry term - ubiquitous. <4> From 1980 to 1990 the annual
consumption of personal computers increased by approximately 900%. It is
expected to continue at a least a rate of 7.5% to the year 2000. Expenditures
personal computers rose by 1100% during that same decade and is now a $43.2
billion dollar industry (CBEMA, 1991). This phenomenal growth is probably not
over; the diffusion of personal computers into the home is still only about 30%.
After a number of premature announcements of the "paperless office," the
"wired city," the "age of telecommuting," etc. a period of intense technological
innovation and diffusion may be finally underway. Developments in consumer
demand, government policy, and technological innovation may provide the
conditions to initiate a period of significant and sustainable development of
communication interfaces and systems. Political leaders such as vice-president,
Gore, have strongly advocated the development of new, high-bandwith information
infrastructures (Gore, 1991). The telephone, the computer, and the television
may finally be entering a period of radical and sustained change.
The means of communication, media technologies and interfaces, may
become more pliable because of both technological innovation and economic
realignment of the communication industry. The diffusion of computer-based
communication systems may lead to changes in (a) communication interfaces and
COMMUNICATION INTERFACES. Changes that integrate computers with
traditional media interfaces to:
(a) create greater interactivity (Krueger, 1991; Laurel, 1991);
(b) address a wider range of sensory channels, codes, and user actions
(c) increase the range of mediated experiences (Krueger, 1991; Lanier &
(d) more fully connect human beings across space and time (Harasim, in
COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS: Structural change and reorganization of
media systems that may lead to:
(a) the convergence of media technologies and infrastructures (Kobayashi,
1986, 1987; Neuman, 1991; Pool, 1983);
(b) increasing mergers of telecommunication, information, entertainment,
and computer industries (Brand, 1988);
(c) the emergence of diverse virtual communities (Harasim, in press).
If these conditions emerge, it is reasonable to assume that the much heralded
merger of computer-based and mass media interfaces is inevitable, if not
On the other hand, one may question the prediction voiced by MIT Media Lab's
Negroponte, "Monologues will become conversations; the impersonal will become
personal; the traditional 'mass media' will essentially disappear" (Brand, 1988,
5). This is not inevitable, any more that the 60's McLuhanite predictions of
death of books. Nonetheless, we might also ask ourselves what will be the place
human abilities and goals in this process of technological and social change?
"human factor" is essential if, echoing Mumford once again, we are to "subdue
(communication technology) to human purposes."
What are the implications for communication research? Faced with
technological change our typical response is reactive; <6> we tend to forecast
evaluate "developments," "trends," and "effects." This response has its
and remains a necessary approach to new media technologies (e.g., Biocca, 1992a;
Shapiro & MacDonald, 1992). But how might communication research help
subdue communication technology to human purposes? If we are entering a period
of creative instability, communication research might be more proactive.
Researchers might find it valuable to not just "critique" or "measure," but also
participate in communication design. Communication researchers might try to
creatively engage and influence the evolutionary process of media design - of
How? This is an open question, but some elements are clear. It is likely that
this kind of engagement requires that communication researchers work more often
part of interdisciplinary teams. Research and design might be anchored in an
understanding of the human factors of communication tested by its direct
to design, implementation, and evaluation.
THE ESSENTIAL QUESTION OF HUMAN FACTORS RESEARCH:
FACING THE PROMISE AND PROBLEM OF COMMUNICATION
Communication researchers, like the public at large, have an ambivalent
attitude about communication technology (Rogers, 1983; Slack, 1984; Slack &
Fejes, 1987; Williams, 1983, 1988). We praise the invention of the printing
but we are suspicious of the television set. Depending on the time, individual,
system or place, the means by which we communicate appear to us either as life
enhancing tools or oppressive obstacles. Janus-like, communication technology
variously turns its positive or negative face towards its users.
But this dualism suggests some questions. How can we make a
communication technology a life enhancing tool instead of an oppressive
How can users more often experience communication mastery rather than drudgery,
transparency rather than opacity? How can communication technologies become
better extensions of thought, mirrors of the mind, or bridges between minds? A
communication researcher adopting a human factors approach implicitly is
committed to these questions.
The design of most technologies, including communication technologies, has
moved from what Bullinger (1986) calls a "technocentric approach" (technology
controls man) to an "anthropocentric approach" (man controls technology). The
technocentric approach is exemplified by the work of industrial engineer
Taylor (Nelson, 1980) and the Gilbreths (Mandel, 1989) whose time and motion
studies sought to make humans conform to the machine processes of industry. By
contrast, the goal of many HCI researchers is that the interface conform to the
thinking, the objectives, and the habits of a particular group of users
1991). If one could summarize the prevailing attitude of human factors
in one sentence, it might read: The user should not have to conform to the
the machine should conform to the user.
At its best, human factors research tries to optimize the value of the
communication technologies that are in use, that are being designed, or that
created in the near future. The approach does not naively embrace the value of
technological innovation. Instead, human factors researchers shoulder the weary
recognition that designers must continuously struggle with technological systems
that they achieve human ends rather than impede them. Human ends are achieved by
iterative and adaptive design at the message, interface, and system levels.
Insert Table 1 about here
The interdisciplinary human factors research team considers a number of
human factors when designing communication interfaces. Table 1 lists some of the
human factors traditionally considered by designers of human-computer
Systems are designed to meet the special communication needs of professional
subcultures like architects and engineers, but also the communication needs of
diverse subcultures including children, the disabled, the musically gifted, etc.
The intense study of human factors in human-computer interaction emerged
from the design of "life-critical" computer systems such as air traffic
systems, nuclear power plant control systems, advanced fighter cockpits, and
medical emergency systems. In such systems, failure of the computer-interface
conform to the information and communication needs of the users could lead to
death or disaster. The interface between the computer and the human is a
communication system, a messaging system for encoding and decoding information.
In life-critical systems the communication interface must facilitate the
exchange of life-and-death information.
Though the approach of human factors design is sometimes used very
narrowly by engineers and programmers, it can be extended when we try to apply
to the design of new communication media. When designing of new media, the
human factors approach is forced to attempt to understand the patterns of human
thinking and activity related to all kinds of human communication. The design of
communication media should be engineered to conform to those human factors. As
a human factors approach inevitably considers communication more broadly, there
emerges a deeper recognition that much of communication is an act of design, be
they messages, codes, or media.
I would like to pursue that last point with an analogy, or to use the
terminology of HCI community, a "design metaphor" (e.g., Erickson, 1990).
Communication media are artificial environments like buildings. If most
communication is an act of design, then design might be conceived as a kind of
architecture, an interactive architecture in which communicators and users
the design. This may seem like an odd proposition, but bear with me. The
architectural metaphor captures the spirit of the human factors approach. The
similarities between communication research design and architecture may shed
light on what is distinctive about the human factors approach to communication
research. I have summarized the comparisons in Table 2.
Insert Table 2 about here
The human factors approach conceives of communication technologies,
techniques, and formats as various means to highlight, facilitate, or expand
aspect of human communication. The human factors approach tries to build open
and flexible structures and environments that support various kinds of
communication discourse. <8>
COMMUNICATION DESIGN MATRIX:
THE BASIC AREAS OF COMMUNICATION DESIGN AND
When we are designing or evaluating a communication interface or a media
system, what are we evaluating? What are the areas of communication action that
an interface or system attempts to extend, facilitate, amplify, or improve? How
we evaluate an interface design? How can we compare the relative strengths and
weaknesses of one communication interface with another? I asked myself these
questions when I was invited to talk about how virtual reality technology might
used to create a "virtual newspaper" (Biocca, in press). I was not interested
thinking of the newspaper as one of those mouse-click multimedia demos that are
now common (e.g., MIT's Newspeek, see Brand, 1988). Rather, I wanted to think
of the human-factors related to the newspaper, to think of a possible
interface from inside the mind of the user and examine its social role as well.
struck me as the first step towards thinking of the design of a communication
interface that might satisfy the personal and social needs now served by
The fact that the "newspaper" might be implemented in a virtual environment just
made the design problem more fluid. Using Habermas (1981a,b) as an inspiration,
if not a guide, I sketched the communication design matrix in Table 3 as a first
to structure my own thinking about human factors design in communication.
Insert Table 3 about here
The matrix in Table 3 is a way of thinking about how a medium facilitates
communication action, the areas that can be assisted by communication design and
can be evaluated by human factors researchers. I can only introduce the
of communication action and evaluative criteria here, a working paper deals in
greater depth with the cells of the matrix (Biocca, 1993).
Many of the communication actions, the columns of the table, will be
familiar to the typical communication scholar. The notion of the transformation
physical form may be a little less familiar, so I will explain. I include it in
because much communication action, such as the use of codes, involves the
exploration and alteration of physical forms: we transform trees into paper and
black patterns of letters on the paper; we turn light into chemical and
patterns in photography and video so we can observe distant places, times, and
people, etc. In the final analysis, technology turns nature into culture.
If communication interfaces are to assist some dimension of the
communication action, then what criteria should we use to guide the design,
and evaluation of communication interfaces? I suggest the following:
Cognitive Criteria: Cognitive criteria are clearly critical; we use media to
exchange, amplify, and store thought. Communication codes and processes are
intimately connected to cognitive processes. Older interfaces like television
newer interfaces like virtual reality can be tested and evaluated to see the
which they satisfy cognitive criteria dealing with learning, memory, attention,
Instrumental Criteria: Most communication action is an instrument used to
goal in some social action: creation, persuasion, work, play, etc. As Habermas
(1981a,b) points out, communication action is often goal directed or
Communication interfaces can be judged to the degree to which they provide
instruments that satisfy the teleological actions of users.
Normative criteria: Communication systems are inevitably normative. For example,
languages are normative; norms make the sharing of communication codes possible.
Communication action often involves the negotiation of communication,
organizational and social norms. The investigation and evaluation of user norms
essential to the design and consideration of any interface.
Expressive criteria: Communication interfaces are used to express a wide range
user moods, observations, and existential states. Like clay an interface and be
stretched, shaped, and prodded to express many forms. The history of the arts
suggests that users will tend to push and expand the expressive range and
of any communication system. Communication technologies can and are designed to
extend the flexibility, range, and content of human expression.
For a team of human factors researchers engaged in communication research
during interface design, a communication matrix like the one outlined in Table 3
suggests the areas of exploration, creation, and evaluation. Each cell of the
is then translated into either: design goals, design specifications, or measures
testing or evaluation.
THE THREE LEVELS OF INTERFACE DESIGN:
MEDIUM, CODE & MESSAGE
The protean nature of the computer is such that it can act like a machine or
like a language to be shaped and exploited. It is a medium that can
dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that
cannot exist physically. It is not a tool, although it can act like many tools.
It is the first metamedium, and as such it has degrees of freedom for
representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely
investigated. (Kay, 1984)
Alan Kay, master designer, lays out the challenge for communication
scholars very clearly. The computer allows for the birth of a medium that can
simulate any other medium, but at the same time it offers us means of
communication and expression that have yet to be explored and understood (e.g.,
virtual reality; Biocca, 1992a; Rheingold, 1991). The first step in taking up
challenge is the design of communication interfaces. The interface and the type
communication that it supports, is inevitably the central concern of human
communications research By way of definition I offer the following:
An interface must use a physical medium to interact with a least one sensory
channel, it must have at least some primitive code, and, finally, a code
cannot be made manifest unless some message is present. Therefore:
Interface = medium(a) + code(s) + message(s).
Research into media, codes, and messages are the basic domain of
communication research. Although the questions are not always articulated in
same way, they are essential to the design of new computer interfaces (e.g.,
& Buxton, 1987; Laurel, 1990, 1991).
There are a number of hotly debated research and design issues at each level
of the interface: medium, codes, and messages. Space does not allow me to cover
the range of research and design issues at each level, but let me suggest some
examples. For example, the design of new media has been forced to consider how
maximize the sensory compatibility and range of interface media hardware and
software (e.g., Biocca, 1992b). The communication value of an interface may
on its use of existing codes. It must also develop new ones to frame the
the human-computer interaction and to map user selections and actions to the
computer program's actions (Shneiderman, 1991). At the message level, human
factors researchers must inevitably consider how the interface can better
extend, and empower the user's design and reception of messages while
communicating within the new computer interface.
The problems of interface research and design cannot be addressed by
individuals but by interdisciplinary teams: engineers, computer programmers,
psychologists, communication researchers, artists, anthropologists, area
etc. For example, the Apple human interface group includes graphic artists,
linguists, psychologists, philosophers, as well as engineers and programmers
1990). The presence of interdisciplinary teams suggests that the human factors
approach, like communication research, is not wedded to a particularly
methodology. By training and disciplinary temperament, communication scholars
may be well suited for research work on human factors teams.
A UTOPIAN VISION TEMPERED BY THE LIMITS OF
Habermas (1981a) argues that there is a decoupling of what he calls the
"system" and the "lifeworld." The lifeworld is increasingly subordinated to the
demands of the system. Distrust of technology emerges in part from the feeling
our sphere of freedom is being restricted by the system (the
industrial apparatus). In the past our reaction to the computer was a reaction
of the most visible parts of the impersonal industrial system. Computer cards
stamped with the message, "do not fold, spindle, or mutilate" from a regime that
seemed to "fold, spindle, and mutilate" the users of the system. Critics like
(1964) bemoaned our preoccupation with technique and how it had helped divorce
technology from human ends.
As computers and communication technologies begin to merge, a creative,
informed, and uncompromising human factors approach can struggle to regain
control over technology and to subordinate aspects of the system to the goals of
individual users. Good interface design tries to turn seemingly impenetrable
into flexible communication tools. We must assume that it is possible to develop
communication research approach that can do more than simply critique practices
assemble lists of possible effects, but can actively help reclaim communication
technology for the individual: for the exercise of creative power, enhanced
expression, and unfettered communication. But obviously, this is as much a
vision as a research program. The Janus-like nature of technology does not
guarantee positive outcomes.
But part of the value of the human factors approach to communication design
must be a recognition of its limits. Only some aspects of communication systems
can be designed by "designers"; communication design is ultimately facilitation,
specification. The pen, the printing press, and the telephone are good models.
facilitate communication; they don't specify it. Many key aspects of
environments are not designed by designers; they are designed by users. The
of the design and redesign of computer networks is a good example (Quarterman,
press). Communication environments are ultimately defined by the unpredictable
diversity of communication action undertaken by individuals and groups. The
strength of a human factors approach may stem not from a passive observation or
measurement of this fact, but from an active engagement with it.
This article began as a set of reflections on the direction of my own research
during a recent leave at Stanford and the University of California- Berkeley.
It was a
chance to return to my earlier interests in communication technology and
would like to thank Byron Reeves, Don Roberts, Steve Chaffee, Richard Cole, and
Gitlin for making my stay in California possible, pleasant, and productive.
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EXAMPLES OF HUMAN FACTORS
CONSIDERED IN THE DESIGN OF COMMUNICATION AND
Perception and Psychophysics: capacities and properties of human sensory
Attention: reaction time, time sharing, workload, and fatigue
Motivation: individual differences, task motivation, emotional satisfaction
Decision Making & Judgement
Procedural Memory: learning, usage, and forgetting
Semantic Memory: meaning construction and mental models
Individual Communication Goals: Related to interface usage
Organizational Communication Goals: Related to interface adoption and usage
Social Communication Goals: Economic, public policy, social advocacy
Relationship to Other Communication Instruments: Range, access, usage, and
utility of other Interfaces
Cultural Variation in Communication Expectation, Performance, or Norms
Contextual and Environmental Factors: affecting or defining performance
Ethical Considerations: related to interface use or abuse
Code Usage: extent and usage of existing communication codes
Message Variability: likely range of message content and contexts
Anthropometry: relationship of human body shape to the hardware
Biomechanics: forces, motion, and feedback patterns of the human body during use
THE ARCHITECTURAL METAPHOR
OF THE HUMAN-FACTORS APPROACH TO COMMUNICATION DESIGN
ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN (AD)
COMMUNICATION DESIGN (CD)
THE ESSENTIAL ACT OF DESIGN
AD- Humans create and live in built-
environments; architects assist in the design
of environments. Architects are acutely
aware that each decision shaping the
environment is an act of design.
CD- Communication researchers adopting
a human factors approach tend to see all
communication as a process of design. Each
communication decision shapes the
communication environment. Their research
tries to contribute to and influence the design
of communication environments.
THE LIMITED GUIDANCE OF BASIC RESEARCH
AD- Basic scientific research provides
essential information about materials, but it
can't create the shape and structure of a
building. Architects must explore the
infinite number of structures using the rules
of thumb of their craft. Each building is only
one of millions of possible and workable
CD- Basic research on human
communication provides essential
information, but it can't tell you the shape
and structure of an interface. Human factors
researchers must explore the infinite number
of ways an interface can be designed using
rules of thumb, creative insight, and what is
known about human communication.
THE CONSTRAINT AND GUIDANCE OF HUMAN FACTORS
AD- Architects are constrained and guided
by the physical properties of materials and
people. Modern architects study human
movement patterns and behaviors to improve
the design of environments.
CD- The design of communication
interfaces and systems is constrained by state
of electronic components and the
communication needs and behaviors of
humans - human factors.
ADAPTIVE DESIGN INFLUENCES BUT DOES NOT CONTROL USERS
AD- The structure of a building influences
the thoughts, emotion, and behaviors of
people who occupy the space, but it does
not control them. Buildings must conform to
the human body; doors must be big enough,
light and air should be plentiful, etc. The
internal structure of a building is defined by
the expected human behaviors inside the
building, by its subculture and purpose -
office versus daycare, industrial plant versus
CD- Communication interfaces influence
the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of the
people who use them, but they do not control
them. Interfaces must conform to the basic
properties of human body including
perception (i.e., image rates in film and
television, contrast levels of print on paper,
etc.). The structure of an interface and
system is designed to meet the expected
behaviors of the users (e.g., the telephone
interface and system).
USERS ULTIMATELY DETERMINE FUNCTION
AD- Users ultimately determine the
function of a rooms and buildings. One's
room in a building can always be turned into
an office, a bedroom, or even a swamp. The
building can always be demolished and
materials reused to create another
environment. The users ultimately define the
life and character of the building.
CD- Users of communication interfaces
determine the function and use of media and
their content. They appropriate media
content and use it in various ways. They can
alter the intended function of a medium or a
message. In new interactive media
technologies like multimedia and electronic
mail, users have more control over the
content of the medium. They can and do
participate in shaping their media
DESIGN IS CONSTRAINED BY HISTORY
AD- Architecture is also constrained by
historical norms and precedent. It "quotes"
previous buildings as it creates anew.
CD- Communication systems, media,
messages can never be truly new. Each
design builds on the codes, genres, and
elements of earlier systems.
(Table 2 cannot be copied in ASCII.)
1. When the word technology is uttered, people hear "electronic," "silicon," and
"steel." When I write the words communication technology, I am not just
the computers sitting on our desks, the satellites hovering high above our
the flickering TV sets at home. The challenges of designing communication
technologies are not unique to the 20th century. A stick scratching "word" in
sand is a technology.
A prehistoric grunt signifying "throw your spear now" is a communication
Communication technologies are the artifices, innovations, and systems, the
which we turn physical reality into a netwok of signs - in a word, culture. The
difference between a stone chip etching the lines of a letter on a rock or a
chip pulsing the pixels of a letter on a screen is a difference in speed and
sophistication, but not in kind. Sophistication should not obscure the simple
of these tools.
2. I am referring here only to that community of researchers who constitutes
membership of associations such as the International Communication Association
Speech Communication Association (SCA), International Association of Mass
Communication Research (IAMCR), the Association for Education in Journalism and
Mass Communication (AEJMC), and related organizations. There are groups of
communication and engineering researchers who have long concerned themselves w
with technical issues related to communication technology [for example some of
membership of the Society of Motion Pictures and Television Entertainment
(SMPTE)], though they have not always done so explicity from a human factors
3. Is the human factors approach to communication research "new"? I distrust
overused word, the chant of the "cult of the new." It is likely that the
reflects a pattern of communication research thinking and activity that is not
invented, but rather is becoming clearer with time. Traces of the human factors
approach to communication research can be found as early as the work of Hugo
Munsterberg, the father of applied psychology, when he ventured into the study
films (Munsterberg, 1910); in the work of Bell Labs; in the redesign of
make them better fit the perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral needs of readers;
Children's Television Workshop studies of Sesame Street; in the design of HDTV,
and other new media.
4. Some refer to a period of "ubiquitous computing" where powerful computers
will be increasingly part of all kinds of consumer products.
5. On the other hand, consumer acceptance of low end interactive computers like
the Nintendo systems is very high. According to some estimates, these and other
level computers have reached a 98% diffusion level in homes with children.
6. It interesting to note that our colleagues in psychology feel that they too
been too "reactive" to technological innovation (Carroll, 1991b). Psychologists
to evaluate systems but this preference for evaluation leads to them to have
influence on the very objects of their evaluations, the computer systems
7. For example, a conference on computing and the disabled examines how
computer systems might be designed to enhance the communication abilities of
individuals with various disabilities.
8. This approach is not inimical to views that communication constructs "social
realities." Like research on social reality construction, the human factors
examines the means by which communication environments are constructed by the
7. The human factors approach tends to push the researcher to explore