Learning the human side of HCI

A collage of ideal life and job made by one of the students

I just finished teaching a graduate level class “Design Thinking, Human-Computer Interaction & User Experience Design for Managers (HCI)” to a group of software engineers. It was as much a learning and clarifying experience for me as it was for the students. Thanks to the flexibility of the leadership of the Integrated Innovation Institute of the Carnegie Mellon University, I was able to introduce my personal perspectives on co-creation and what it means to understand human experience as the defining framework for Human Computer Interface design.

Before the first class I conducted an online survey with the students to understand their past education, experience and expectations from the class. I realized that all of them aspire to become Product Managers or entrepreneurs. They expected to learn methods and tools of Human Computer Interface design during this course. Also, it became clear to me that their current mental model of design was largely defined by features and functionalities of the software, usability considerations and a self-created hypothesis about the benefits their idea would bring to the users. I decided to frame the course as- “Learning the mindsets, methods and tools required to become successful Product Managers”. I also invited a guest lecturer to every class who was an accomplished UX Designer or a Product Manager in the industry to talk about Mindsets, methods and tools that helped them have an influence in the organization and impact in the marketplace.

Each four-hour long class was divided into: A guest lecture, a hands on exercise to explore different aspects of generative thinking, and a lecture about a specific aspect of co-creating meaningful experiences. The hands on exercise was meant to encourage reflection and dialogue (both in break out session and in the entire class).

On the first day I reminded the class that they were going to create two outputs from this class: They would work in teams to go through an entire co-creation process from the mind-to market. The class was divided in four teams and each team was assigned a project topic. The four topics assigned were: A co-pilot for a car, Virtual Primary Care, Parking Assistant Software, and a Communication platform for students, teachers and parents of schools. This activity would need to produce a prototype to be tested with their target audience.

The second assignment given to them was a statement of vision for their career that would evolve through the entire duration of the class based on their personal reflections about the lectures, activities and readings. This exercise began with each student creating a collage, “My ideal life and job”.

An extract from a vision statement by a student

The first class began with my response to each student’s survey response and an invitation to interact with me one on one- throughout the course to discuss the alignment of the course content with their personal goals. I also invited Maya Bisneer, a product leader and a board member at GoDaddy, to share her experience of managing innovation at her company. That day we did an empathy exercise. I played a music video based on four lines from my poem “Pandemic” in which I have depicted various images of people in distress during Covid-19. I asked the students to pay attention to which image resonated the most with them and then we discussed why. That discussion brought to surface different aspects of creating emotional resonance.

An image from the video that students empathized with

Another assignment helped students understand and appreciate the value of a story surrounding a product and the qualities of the experience that made it a meaningful experience. I gave each team a word. I asked each student to think about a story from their life they cherish that is associated with that word and then to share that story within their team. The four words given to the four teams were: Chair, Poem, Train and water. Each student had to tell her/his story to her team and then they had to collectively agree on the common qualities of the stories told by all the members of the team- which made the stories meaningful to them. After identifying the qualities, the team had to design an APP that enabled the users to have an experience that incorporated those qualities.

Everyday I introduced a new hands on exercise, which would allow them to have a better understanding of what makes an experience meaningful and relevant to user context and desirable.

Another interesting aspect of the class was, I wanted them to shift their focus from earning good grades to improving their conceptualization skills. Nobody got full marks to the assignments they submitted at the end of the first week. Many students asked me why they lost grades. I pointed out to them that I had measured their work against the benchmark of the quality of professional output that my clients would expect. I told them that they should focus more on self improvement and quality of outputs and less on grades. They should focus more on creating a project and a vision statement that they can be proud to include in their portfolio than to get a 4.0 GPA. I was not surprised that through a continuous process of feedback and improvement the entire class produced quality work in six weeks and everyone ended up getting A or A-.

As I look back at the outcome of the class, I feel satisfied at serving my goals:

  1. To inculcate humanitarian framing in the way software engineers think,
  2. To prepare them to design with people they design for.
  3. To develop respect for a perspective that every stakeholder in a value chain has a stake in the success of a product or a service and from that perspective engaging their wisdom and ideas will only help create value for all.
  4. To emphasize that a sense of purpose and alignment with a larger societal cause will help them create a more meaningful and impactful career path.

The course ended with a dialogue with Don Norman. He was candid about the things he has learned in his life and about his current focus on design education and on supporting the communities in San Diego.

Overall, several students were surprised at the transformation in thinking they experienced despite the fact that the class did not turn out to be what they thought it would be- about learning the skills to build products for great UX. I hope they would recognize over time that indeed they did learn what they came to learn but they also learned what they did not know they did not know about creating value in the society with a new set of mindsets, methods and tools.

I ended the class by playing a music video of my poem, “The Universe” based on an A cappella piece composed by a CMU student of music composition, Ian Kaneko. My parting message to the students was - they should learn to understand the power of poetry and to view their creations in the future with the sensitivity of a poet and an artist. My parting gift to each student was my book of poems, “a window for a home without walls: life, imagination design.”




A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.

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Uday Dandavate

Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.

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