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August 21, 2014 by tpizzle14


Human technology interactions is an ever changing phenomenon evolving with each generation and culture. Now in the digital age, technology is much more integrated than ever before, with products such as computers and mobile devices becoming a dominant driving force providing almost endless creative possibilities of what can be achieved with these devices. Professor Bert Bongers explains in his PhD Interactivation that 21st Century design is “Towards creating an e-cology of people, our technological environment, and the arts” suggesting that this need for human- technology interactions is crucial in building a contemporary society.

Every designer communicates with people through their products, and they do this through the affordances they allow as stated by industrial designer Don Norman in his design principle of ‘Mapping’ which “Refers to the relationship between controls and their effects in the world.” To take this principle into consideration, think of a door handle and how it tell us to use it. Do we push, pull or slide it? Or is it something different altogether? Designers base these interactions on already known interfaces, creating mental models for people with one of the biggest break-throughs of the 20th century being Apple in 1985 making a computer software (Desktop Publishing Plus) replicate a physical desktop with a place to store your files and document events, giving birth to the term we all continue to use for the computer screen interface, the computer ‘desktop’.


The interface to ‘Desktop Publishing Plus’, the first ever desktop interface – Apple (1985)


The human technology interactions rely on these affordances and mental models used by companies like Apple which have been very cleverly integrated into all of their product interfaces using icons that replicate what they are trying to communicate, such as the use of a picture of a file for the part of the computer you keep your documents in or a trash can for unwanted files and so on. These affordances are “ornamental design cues” (Norman, 2002) which tell us how to interact with the product and these cues can be seen all over the world. Another universally recognised cue is the pedestrian crossing. When we go to cross the road at traffic lights and see the button, we automatically know that we have to press it, not turn it or pull it. These are simple examples; however, they have made the world much more accessible to us just as Apple did with its ‘desktop’ interface, making the computer an accessible tool for everyone thus starting a revolution in the early beginnings of the digital age.

The mental models that shape our understanding of the world are changing throughout time as we now see children becoming computer literate at a very young age; however, a consequence of this is the loss of handwriting skills. I conducted a simple experiment to see how these mental models have changed over the years by asking two family members to tell me what they envision when I ask them to dial a number. I asked my mother, and then my sister and found that my mother imagines the 1960s style phone where the user would use a dial to call someone. My sister imagines a key pad where she pushes in numbers, and there are no dials involved. Whilst the action of dialling a number has changed, the term to describe the action has remained the same. Designers have used this to shape our ways of thinking about technology by having users perceive digital streams of data on their computer as ‘documents’ and even shaping application interface off this with applications like ‘Word’ or ‘Pages’ mimicking a sheet of paper that we write on and even adding a shadow around the document to make it seem more realistic and three dimensional.



A Word page layout designed to mimic writing on a ‘wooden’ desk. The page also has a shadow around it making it seem more realistic.


The Apple iCal calendar app icon that is based off our mental perception of what a calendar should look like. This is why there is no text needed under the icon to tell us what the app is.


Bongers, A.J.B, 2006. Interactivation. 1st ed. VIRJE University, Amsterdam: De Bolelaan.

Prentice-Hall, P.P, 2003. Human-Computer Interaction. 3rd ed. Lancaster University, UK: Pearson.

Norman, D.A.N, 2007. The Design of Future Things. 1st ed. California : Basic Books.

Norman, D.A.N, 2002. The Design of Everyday Things. 1st ed. California: Basic Books.


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