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PSY-244: Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction

In 2021, I was invited by my alma mater to teach a class in the psychology department. I created my own curriculum for PSY-244: Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction and taught three classes a week for an entire semester. There was no final. Instead, students went through the research and design process with their own app as an in-class project.

An overview of the course is presented below, in the format of slide notes. If you want to see the real slides I created (over 500 of them!) you can get them here:

“I had no idea this existed until this class. Will you write me a letter of recommendation?”

Nothing got me more excited as a teacher than hearing that from my student — except when I found out that my student was accepted into the same human-computer interaction summer research program I went to. Academic-grade summer camp for UX nerds. She found out about UX and HCI in my course, and now she’s pursuing it for a career.

Pretty incredible.

So how do you write a class that’s an introduction to a truly enormous field? My students were psychology students, so they were familiar with some basic concepts, and they were all born after Y2k, so they’d never known a world without computers.

I decided to structure the class around a final project. What better way to learn about user experience and the design process than doing it? Students would come up with an app, design an interface for it, conduct user testing, and present their findings. Like a client project compressed to three months.

When I was in college, my favorite classes weren’t the ones where the professor stood up in front of us and talked for an hour. I wanted it to be interactive and interesting, and I did that with the dreaded in-class activity. I didn’t want students to just hear about these ideas, I wanted them to use them. There’s no better way to learn a new tool than just using it.

Students needed to first learn concepts at the most basic level, then have a place to try them out in a controlled and safe environment — where variables are limited and mistakes are learning opportunities. Those became the in-class activities. The semester-long project became the place to synthesize everything.

But before they can do any of that, they first had to answer a deceptively complex question. What even is good design? I leaned heavily on Don Norman for this one. And since I was also a psych major, I had plenty to say about mental models, schemata, and ethnography

Research is close to my heart, and I really wanted students to understand how important it is. After all, you can’t design the right thing if you don’t know what people need. We spent a lot of time talking about techniques for investigating mental models and how to be empathetic towards your users.

Then we get to my one of my favorite topics: disability and designing for the extremes1. Arguably, we’re all disabled when it comes to using computers. Designing for people who need the most support often leads to improvements for everybody, and when you’re designing for a userbase of millions of people, choosing not to serve 1% of users has huge negative impacts on lots of people.

This led very nicely into another seemingly-simple question: how do we do things? One great model is the seven stages of action, which I think pairs nicely with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. I believe that flow is a mental state that all interfaces should help the user achieve, based on Doug Engelbart’s idea of augmented human cognition.

But even the best interface isn’t perfect. How do we support users when things go wrong? What does it even mean to make a mistake? I wanted my students to think about what makes a system error-resistant, and the kinds of things we can design to make recovering from them easier.

I wanted to start talking about information architecture, but before I could I discovered something pretty surprising about my students. None of them knew how to write! They could clearly articulate their thoughts and findings when talking to me, but the minute pen hit paper, it all fell apart. So we took a brief detour to discuss the writing process, a few basics of rhetoric and the fundamentals of structuring an essay. This paid off in a big way when they had to give presentations at the end of the semester.

Then I finally got to talk about my most favorite essay on interaction design — the one that blew my head wide open and changed the way I think about design and interactivity. The one that has an entire section titled Interactivity considered harmful.”

At this point in their projects, students were wireframing and doing user testing. After weeks of nothing but needfinding and just learning how field research works, they finally got to build something. And thanks to their findings, their designs were informed by and responsive to their users’ needs. I introduced them to the double diamond design process and the wonders of iterative designing — and showed them how to interpret their findings and synthesize them into improved interfaces.

Meanwhile, I was trying to cram their brains as full of HCI concepts as I could: VR and AR, collaborative software and digital communication, voice interfaces and affective computing.2 There’s way too much to cover in a semester here. My hope was that I could plant little seeds for each concept, so that one day, they could pursue them.

At this point, the students were pretty far into their projects. They had some wireframes done and their interfaces were tested and backed up by data3, so they were ready to move into the final stage of the process (and the one most terrifying to psychology students): visual design! For most of them, this is their first exposure to basics like Gestalt psychology, working with typography, and animation. Everyone is bad at it! That’s okay — the class was a safe place to suck at something.

The semester was almost over, but there was still a little time to talk about another favorite topic: user interfaces in video games. I think video games can provide so many valuable lessons for designers, including things like respecting input intentions and how to interpret research. It also meant I could talk about expressivity in inputs and the Xbox adaptive controller — which is a great lead-in to ethics!

I don’t think most designers think about ethics in their work. I wanted to help students contextualize their role as designers in a broader world. When you’re designing a driverless car, who should the algorithm prioritize and who should it kill? The predator drone is incredibly well-designed for delivering weapons to a precision target — but is that a good thing? Not reviewing your work with real people can lead to them being disenfranchised! I wanted to remind them that they are responsible to the people their work impacts, not just the people who will one day pay them.

But once the heavy stuff was covered, we could get back to really exciting things like the visual display of quantitative information and how John Snow (the heir to the Iron Throne) invented epidemiology and ended a cholera outbreak with a really good data visualization. Representing your data well is the first step to explaining it and a critical part of getting people to understand it.

After all, work you can’t sell is work that doesn’t matter.4 And the worst case is that you obscure your message so much that people die as a result. Remember when I said teaching them how to write paid off down the line? Now they could finally leverage all those writing skills to create presentations with themes, motivations, arguments, and compelling stories that built empathy.

Then sadly — we were at the end! Like a good researcher should, I sent out three surveys over the duration of the course to ask how it was going, what topics people liked, and most importantly: if they felt like this class was a good use of their time. Sadly the results have been lost to the unsparing law of data retention policies, but I was pleased to see that everyone liked what they learned and felt like they learned a lot.

I got bit by the teaching bug. After developing and teaching PSY-244: Intro to Human-Computer Interaction, just explaining the rules of a new board game wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to get people as excited about design and research as I am, so I got involved with the internship program where I work. I co-run it now, and mentor our annual interns and our team’s new hires, as well as overhauled our onboarding process.

  1. Did you know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to help his work with the deaf? Or that the typewriter was invented by an Italian guy who wanted his blind lover to be able to write, and that it was invented again just four years later by another Italian guy who wanted his blind sister to be able to write? 

  2. Not a typo! Affective — like feelings! 

  3. Because if there isn’t research to support it, it’s an opinion. 

  4. I’m not ashamed to admit I thought this was a Don Draper original for a while. 

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