Not feeling the HCI Kool-Aid

I’m on pace to complete my undergraduate human-computer interaction major next semester. However, ever since pursuing the major, I’ve been confused about what I’m actually learning.

The following is a collection of thoughts on my academic HCI experience at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Curriculum

Students are required to take a collection of courses from several relevant disciplines as well as three core HCI classes [ link ].

I appreciate how the major emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of HCI. Students span all majors and the curriculum exposes students to classes in different schools. The prerequisites include:

  • Cognitive psychology
  • Intro to programming
  • Communication design fundamentals
  • Probability and statistics

However, after one communication design class, I still do not feel I have the skills to talk with a full-time designer about his or her work. After several statistic classes, I’d still leave the statistical analysis to the statisticians. But that is not the point of the major.

The following are required classes specific to HCI.

HCI Methods

This class is the heart of the HCI program, which teaches students about a number of user-centered design methods. The list of topics includes personas, think-alouds, cognitive walkthroughs, and contextual inquiries. While many students found this class to be useful, I felt I was well-exposed to the techniques but didn’t see enough of the methods in practice. I can talk about them but again, I would be hesitant to practice them myself.

Software Architecture for User Interfaces

This is the HCI class on implementation. It’s probably better if I don’t say much about this class.

The Project Course

This is the capstone HCI class where groups of HCI majors work together on a semester-long project for an external client.

Clients think,
free labor to improve the interface and product of my choice!

The students partaking in the class had a series of presentations from the potential clients about their projects. Through all eight or more presentations, it was evident that the string of clients had little knowledge of HCI. To be honest, it seemed as if the school sent out a call for projects that could use some free HCI work. Yes, I may be a little bitter that we as students are paying to do work for startups and people who likely don’t care whether or not we do user research.

But I am judging early. Perhaps, this last class is the one that ties it all together, and then it’ll all make sense. But from what I see so far, I’m a bit wary.

HCI Research

I’ve worked with two professors and enjoyed the experience. I support HCI conferences such as CHI and UIST as I believe there is good work being done. The research at CMU HCII is more or less disjoint of the primary coursework; only a small subset of the research deals with the interaction design methods. The coursework focuses on techniques for practical applications (for products) where as the research covers a wider spectrum of topics, from how users collaborate on Wikipedia to designing embeddable electronics.


Would an HCI+CS major work better with a designer than an CS major would?

Everyone realizes the importance of working with people of all fields. But would an HCI+CS major work better with a designer than an CS major would? I’m not sure. In fact, one of my concerns is that HCI majors may falsely claim knowledge in a field they have dabbled in whereas others might defer.

However, in the process of writing this, I actually find myself answering a lot of my own questions and having a better feel of what HCI actually is. This article also helped. Human-computer interaction is concerned with using technology to design better experiences for users. It’s good that people realize that to do so requires the collaboration of different fields.

My view of the CMU HCI curriculum is a program which dabbles in programming, psychology, and interaction design. It is a good start but there is room for improvement. For one, I’d like to see more evaluating and designing of actual interfaces. There seem to be two groups of people, ones who drink the HCI Kool-Aid and ones who don’t. While the ones who drink appear enlightened in the classroom, I find most of what we are taught intuitive and unsurprising. Perhaps this is the result of the same topics being covered in different classes and me not wanting to see another UAR.

Available only as a secondary major, the HCI program accomplishes the following.

  • Experience working with people of other disciplines
  • Exposure to user-centered design methods

These are indeed valuable skills. In the end, though, if you ask me, can you create better products and interfaces now having completed the major?

The honest answer: I don’t know.

  • Can Duruk

    I agree with your sentiment that a lot of the HCI courses regurgitate similar material and that the limited exposure to stuff like statistics and actual design limit your ability.

    I think, at least in undergrad level, the HCI major at CMU provides two major benefits: a community of people who share the same passion as you and a common vocabulary to talk about user experience and interfaces.

    You could argue whether or not those are just side benefits. There are definitely times when I felt like I didn't get as much as I could from the major. Many times, it gave me a lot to talk about but not a lot to do stuff with.

    Maybe, though, that level of exposure is just enough to get your feet wet and now you are supposed to get into the industry and do stuff on your own. I'm not a CS major but my experience with CS students and courses tell me that, at least a significant portion of ones at CMU, would be unable to kick-start a project on their own or work without a spec. Same with the HCI stuff; I'm pretty sure I'd not know where to start with a lot of the stats or things I learned from Methods (I did choke on a HCI related interview when they asked things from methods) but then I now know how to look up stuff if I have to or ask the right people.

    Anyway, maybe I'm rationalizing now that I'm almost done with the major. There's not anything I don't agree with in this post. Just wanted to put in my two cents.

  • Marshall Roch

    About Methods, you wrote, “I can talk about [the methods] but again, I would be hesitant to practice them myself.” That's exactly the point of the Project. You can practice in an almost-real-world environment, but there's very little risk to the client. I can't speak for the BHCI project, but the Masters project helped a lot to build experience with and confidence about the methods taught in Methods. I actually wish we as undergrads had to take the Methods lab like masters students; I feel like that's what would've really tied Methods together, but we skipped it.

    I'm not sure the HCI program is or should be designed to really prepare you to do everything you learn in the program in the real world. Even though I just finished a masters in the subject, I could never see myself becoming an “HCI professional” in the jack-of-all-trades way it's portrayed by the HCII. With my CS background, I'd definitely leave the majority of design to the designers and statistics to the statisticians and psychology to the psychologists, but having dabbled in all of those areas is definitely useful. I hope I never have to do another contextual inquiry in my life but I have now seen firsthand the value of user-centered design and the crazy, unexpected feedback you can get from things like CIs. I feel like I can make better UI decisions from having all of that background than a regular CS major, and yes, I can talk to a designer or user researcher with more shared knowledge and experience than a non-HCI CS major.