HCDE students apply HCI theory to real world design problems

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This winter, undergraduate students in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) learned how to apply theory and methods from Human-Computer Interaction research to the design of real world online collaboration systems.

Originally designed by Professor Beth Kolko, HCDE 419: Concepts in Human-Computer Interaction has been a part of the HCDE undergraduate curriculum for many years, but in a sense it's a new course every year: HCDE 419 is open to students from other majors, such as Informatics and Interaction Design who are pursuing HCI Concentrations in their majors, and the high proportion (approximately 50%) of students from outside the department assures a variety of expertise and perspectives.

HCDE 419 also features a new theme every year: past themes have included "online privacy and security" and "mobile medical technologies." Selected readings draw on HCI methods, theory, and empirical research that bear specifically on the year's theme. Much of the class is devoted to a quarter-long group project that allows students to apply the course readings to the design of a real-world product.

HCDE 419 included presentations from guest speakers from academia and industry, such as HCDE alumni Tamara Adlin (MS '96; Adlin, Inc.) and Matt Shobe (MS '96; BigDoor, Inc.), who shared their design expertise with the class in an informal setting. At the end of the quarter, a panel of UX researchers and designers from Microsoft, Ascentium, and Foundry Interactive watched the students final project presentations and gave targeted feedback to help students 'pitch' their projects to potential employers.

HCDE PhD Candidate Jonathan Morgan, who taught 419 this year, believes that the fluid structure of the course is its greatest strength:

419 is a great class to teach and to take, because rather than a 'survey course' which tries to cram everything about Human-Computer Interaction into 10 weeks—a task that would be impossible to do well—the course theme provides a lens through which students can see how HCI theory, methods and research studies bear on a specific research and design topic, and then apply that knowledge as they learn.

This year, Morgan decided to make the theme "online collaboration," and included readings about how people create common goods and resources, and make decisions together over the internet.

Student projects also focused on online collaboration: one project team designed a mobile app called Eat with Us, which helps groups of people quickly and easily decide where they want to go for lunch.

Other 419 projects also focused on compelling real-world problems related to collaborating online, such as a website that allows people to compose music in real time with collaborators across the country, a redesign of Delicious.com to increase its potential as a creative collaboration platform, a system for connecting United Way volunteers with relevant volunteer opportunities, a household chore app for people living in large group households, and an online tutoring interface for ESL students in need of writing help.

William Brian Espinosa, a member of the Eat With Us project, found HCDE 419 to be an especially valuable course:

I have learned a great deal about the human-centered design process and the intricacies of collaborative interactions in [HCDE 419] and the Eat With Us project... I believe that our work will go beyond this class and we are considering submitting our designs for next year's Shobe Prize competition. More importantly, this design concept will be a portfolio piece and will showcase my design, research and teamwork skills.

HCDE 419 is a significant class for Morgan, as well.

419 was the first course I ever took in HCDE. I was a non-matriculated student, recently graduated from college and working in the technology industry at a job that wasn't particularly engaging. I wanted to learn what this whole 'HCI' things was about, and taking 419 from Beth [Kolko] immediately hooked me. By the end of the quarter, I was pestering her with questions about the PhD program. And teaching the course has been especially fulfilling for me. The students were all so smart and engaged, and the wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets they possess made both the in-class conversations and the projects especially awesome.