Human-Centered Information Systems (HCIS)

Gary W. Strong, Interactive Systems

National Science Foundation

(The material in this paper represents the views of the author and does not reflect National Science Foundation policies.)


In the last several years there has been a growing national awareness that the ways in which humans interact with and relate to information systems are critical to achieving high levels of service and functionality. Improvements in computing and communications per se are only a part of what is need to reach the potential of new information technologies. While there are predictions for faster computers and more connectivity, there are yet few organized programs focusing on how individuals, groups, and communities will interact with the technology in institutional settings to extract useful information for decision making and for general knowledge expansion. Speed and connectivity are not enough to make "systems" useful as "information engines."

Many of the functional failures of major operational systems have been couched in the vague term "operator error." Such phrases hint at knowledge gaps regarding how humans, groups and organizations interact with computing and communication systems. Current system design methodologies and requirements definition still tend to focus on the architecture of software and hardware, discounting higher level issues, ones that address individuals, groups, communities, and the nature of collaboration environments. The possibility of achieving new capabilities through human-centered information systems and technologies is an opportunity for broad societal impact. It holds the promise of redefining national competitiveness and productivity, for improving the general workforce, and creating a more informed and educated citizenry as we enter more deeply into the information age.

Technical Content and R&D Agenda

The HCIS goals are to augment human capabilities to manage and use information through advances in five primary research and technology areas. Research programs or projects may aim at advances in either a few technology threads or, perhaps, in all of them, depending on the specific research targets.

Table 1: HCIS Research Goal Threads

Technology R&D ThreadGoal
RepresentationImproved representation of real and synthetic information for effective human use.
InteractivityImproved interaction between humans, agents, systems and information environments.
CognitionImproved computational, modeling and learning capabilities for information processing and understanding.
CorporaImproved organization, access capabilities and content to facilitate human access, manipulation and comprehension
AgentsImproved interactive environments, agents, tools and testbed.

Relationship to CIC Strategic Focus Areas

The NSTC Committee on Information and Communications [CIC95] User-centered Interfaces and Tools Strategic Focus Area is addressed directly by the HCIS research and development agenda as is the Virtual Environments Strategic Focus Area. In addition to these, however, basic scientific research on human learning and cognition and application of that understanding in information technology will be required to develop and support Human Resources and Education. Virtual environments will be used for life-long learning as well as skill maintenance. Relevant education will depend not so much on cycles, software, or connectivity but on the development of information literacy and computational model literacy to be gained by working with human-centered information systems.

The relationship of HCIS technologies to High Confidence Systems research and development is based to a large extent on the degree to which confidence is achieved by keeping the human in the loop yet enabling higher quality, more effective information use. Issues of operator error will be understood and eliminated in the design of human-centered information systems. HCIS technologies also complement and build upon Global-scale Information Infrastructure. Distributed virtual environments and user interfaces will depend on and set parameters for the development and use of global information infrastructure. On of the most important issues to be addressed in this area for HCIS is that of how information systems scale when every citizen accesses the Internet and demands peak performance. Finally, HCIS technologies are complementary to and build on High Performance and Scaleable Systems. New scalability parameters must be added to existing models to account for issues that depend on the number, type, and distribution of users, groups, and organizations and the applications they will use.


Some unique rationales for investments in HCIS technologies can be identified:

Information Value: As society moves from a focus on systems to a focus on information, the need for better understanding of information itself becomes central. Information must be understood in terms of its value to the individual, group, or organization. The varied intentions of the user population determine parameters of information value. Any evaluation criteria for the success of computing and communications must include an assessment of the value of the information delivered.

Performance and Productivity: Notions of high performance in the next generation computing capabilities must be expanded from previous machine performance concepts to the level of human work itself. Productivity is a primary aim of high performance and is normally judged for individuals, groups and organizations. The expected advances in high performance and productivity require new investments in research and development to understand productivity as applied to human-centered information systems.

Tractability of Productivity Problems: There are many problems that remain intractable when merely increasing the scales of speed, data size, or connectivity. Information use and management among networked organizations that are in dynamic flux are increasing problems in terms of heterogeneous information requirements and mixed computing and communications resources. Such user environments inject new problems that affect productivity.


[CIC95] "Strategic Implementation Plan: America in the Age of Information" Committee on Information and Communications, National Science and Technology Council. March 10, 1995. National Coordination Office for HPCC. Office of Science and Technology Policy. (Web Address:

[JACOB95] "NSF Interactive Systems Grantees Workshop: November 10-12, 1995, Cambridge Mass." (Web Address:

Human-Centered Information Systems