CPSC544-Course outline

Course staff: Dr. Heather O’Brien (instructor) + Sang-wha Sien (teaching assistant)

Term: September 2020 – December 2020

Time/place: T/Th 11:00 – 12:20, Zoom  (First class: Thursday, September 10, 2020)

Course Overview

People are increasingly surrounded by interactive computational technology systems that are integral to their everyday life. However, poorly designed systems are common, and they can lead to negative outcomes such as frustration, lost time, and errors. The role of design is more crucial than ever before for crafting appropriate systems that truly meet people’s needs, abilities, and expectations. CPSC 544 covers the theories and concepts important for all professionals and researchers that design interactive technology for human use. This course will build common ground across students from a range of backgrounds, so they will have a shared vocabulary and methods to bring into other components of the Designing for People (DFP) program. Designing for People means designing for human experience, abilities, and fallibilities, which requires in-depth engagement of people throughout the design process in order to develop interactive technologies that fit human needs and capabilities. More specifically, the course adopts a human-centered design (HCD) approach and teaches a highly iterative process called design thinking. This process draws heavily on fundamental human computer interaction (HCI) methods. Students will have a chance to practice and hone their abilities through weekly homework in the context of a project, in-class activities and discussions, and critical reflective journals on readings.


CPSC 544 is the first core course of the Designing for People (DFP) program (new program started in Sept 2017 (http://dfp.ubc.ca), and is also open to non-DFP graduate students who are curious about how to design effective interactive systems.


While there are no formal prerequisites, the ability to do basic computer programming will be an asset for the prototyping part of the course. Alternate tools that require minimal programming will however be possible.  Further, there will be some coverage of experimental design and analysis, which relies on some basic statistical knowledge.


  • 80 minute classes: an activity-oriented discussion-based seminar, twice weekly
  • Readings based (no textbook); Small group work during lecture time.


All communication will go through Canvas (canvas.ubc.ca). (Only matters that are of a personal sensitive nature should go through email to the instructors.)

Office hours

Dr. Heather O’Brien (Zoom): Wednesdays 4-5 pm


  • Researcher journals for critical reflection on course readings.
  • New methods are introduced about every week that students work through on their own or with a small team (homework) and “present” the outcome of applying the method in the context of a project to the rest of the class in a design critique, approximately every other week.

Learning Goals

Upon successful completion of the course, the student will demonstrate the ability to:

  • Use, explain, and gain experience in human-centered design and the design thinking process, including methods for understanding people, exploring the problem area in-depth, identifying the right problem, ideating potential solutions, creating prototypes, and evaluating the prototypes.
  • Identify and use appropriate data gathering/design methods when working through understanding users’ needs in different stages of the design process.
  • Identify different frameworks and approaches to design; e.g. human-centered design vs. user centered design.
  • Describe the central HCI techniques, frameworks or processes, in the context of their purpose: e.g., in providing structure for understanding tasks, identifying interaction problems, design alternatives, and next-step process choices.
  • Collect and analyze information about specific group of people to appropriately define their activities, experiences, and needs: e.g., design and run a small field study and a small experiment.
  • Understand the relevance of mental models of human users (such as cognitive resources, sensory processing) to usability problems in design.
  • Have experience with tools and methods for interface prototyping and construct design solutions focused on accounting for human abilities/limitations.
  • Be familiar with research papers in HCI and be able to effectively identify, apply, and propose appropriate design methods and data collection/analysis techniques when investigating a potential research problem.
  • Be familiar with other newer approaches to design in HCI when designing futuristic computational technologies; e.g. critical design, design fiction, and speculative design.

Tentative Grading  Scheme

Your course mark will be based roughly on the following breakdown. The instructor reserves the right to change this scheme.

Researcher Journal (pre-class preparation on readings)    20%
Participation (in-class activities, discussions, peer review) and Attendance    5%
Project (approximately 6 milestones/design critiques)    70%

Unless otherwise noted on the page for an individual deliverable, the late penalty will be 5% per day.

Required Texts/Materials     

Survey and research articles will be the primary text for the course, chosen from a collection of readings. There is no textbook required.

Requirement for original work

Students are expected to always submit their own original work and to be familiar with UBC’s policies around plagiarism, which can be found at this link.

Diversity and Inclusion

In an ideal world, academic research would be representative of the voices from the diverse individuals who engage in academic pursuits. However, historically, academic research is built on a small subset of privileged voices. In this class, we will make an effort to read papers from a diverse group of designers/human-computer interaction researchers/scientists, but limits still exist on this diversity. We acknowledge that it is possible that there may be both overt and covert biases in the material due to the lens with which it was written. Integrating a diverse set of experiences is important for a more comprehensive understanding.

Please contact us (in person or electronically) or submit anonymous feedback if you have any suggestions to improve the quality of the course materials.

Furthermore, we would like to create a learning environment for our students that supports a diversity of thoughts, perspectives and experiences, and honors your identities (including race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, ability, etc.) To help accomplish this:

  • If you have a name and/or set of pronouns that differ from those that appear in your official UBC records, please let us know.
  • If you feel like your performance in the class is being impacted by your experiences outside of class, please don’t hesitate to come and talk with us. We want to be a resource for you. Remember that you can also submit anonymous feedback (which will lead to us making a general announcement to the class, if necessary to address your concerns). If you prefer to speak with someone outside of the course, the Equity and Inclusion Office at UBC is an excellent resource.
  • We (like many people) are still in the process of learning about diverse perspectives and identities. If something was said in class (by anyone) that made you feel uncomfortable, please talk to us about it. (Again, anonymous feedback is always an option.)
  • As a participant in course discussions and your course project, you should also strive to honor the diversity of your classmates.