Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Why students want to learn HCI

In the first day of my HCI course yesterday, I decided to pull out a simple exercise that I learned from my friend Joyce Huff, a faculty member in the English department.  Around a year ago or so, she told me about how on the first day of class, she likes to ask her literature students what they hope to learn in the course, and how this helps her engage with them in a conversation about the course topics and goals. I did something similar, asking my students what they hoped to learn by studying Human-Computer Interaction.

I joked at the opening that I didn't want to hear, "I am in the course only because it fits my schedule," and I suggested that this would probably be a good reason to take a different course. The first student was a friendly chap who had taken my Game Programming course last semester, and he introduced himself saying that he was only there because it fit his schedule. I assume he was being honest with me, and I responded with something like, "Well, even if that's true, it's not really what I want to hear." Again, I was speaking half in jest, but in retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have; it might have actually been good to let students acknowledge that they had no goals besides three credits of elective. Whether it was a missed opportunity or an instance of forcing reflection, I suppose I cannot now know.

Many students mentioned that they want to learn make GUIs and to make them well. A few admitted that their own UI design skills were not very good and that they hoped the course would improve these. Only one student that I can recall expressed explicit interest in programming GUIs; the others whose expected outcomes went in this direction were talking more about design. No one mentioned evaluation explicitly, although it seems any undergraduate who went through CS222 should know that some kind of acceptance testing would be part of this process. It may simply not have been worth mentioning to them, or they have not considered usability evaluation as something that can be extracted and studied on its own.

A few students talked about wanting to know more about design philosophy, and I suspect these students might be the happiest with my course plans. One described his goal as being to approach the "bridge" between the technical artifact and human psychology. He was wary of using that metaphor, but I encouraged him. I did ask a clarification about whether he meant a bridge as might be found in software architecture, but he confirmed that he was talking about the divide between the technical and the human.

The only time a specific technology came up was when a student mentioned interest in PLCs. One other student explicitly said he was interested in HCI design beyond simply screen-based interactions. I was a little surprised that this only came up once, given the popularity of VR and AR, but I was glad to hear it come up once.

A few students said that they were inspired by experiences with bad user-interfaces, and that they wanted to be able to critique more effectively, justify their critiques, and create something better. Games came up once, and so did medical technology, as particular domains of interest.

Two students mentioned their capstone projects specifically. All of our undergraduates have to complete a two-semester capstone sequence, which means that these students are taking the HCI elective while completing their capstone projects. That may prove to be challenging for them, as teams are perennially cramming for these projects at the end of Spring. At least they see the opportunity to apply knowledge between classes; I will have to remind them to manage their time wisely.

One student said that she simply likes design, which I think is a great honest answer. If we had the benefit of time, I could have asked her how she defines "design" and used that as a springboard into a broader conversation, but this was really an end-of-class discussion.

That's everything I can pull out of my notebook and my memory. I thought it might be interesting to share here, and for me to have for reference later in the semester. I already wish the class were 75 instead of 50 minutes, since the short time really cramps our conversations, but I'm hoping to hit stride soon enough.

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