XXIV.4 July-August 2017
Page: 66
Digital Citation

The future of user experience education

Andrea Peer

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The HCI Living Curriculum Committee was born from the idea that the field is evolving too fast and is too varied to have a static, one-size-fits-all curriculum. Scholars in the field have proposed that HCI curriculum recommendations need to be current, relevant, and reflective of the multitude of HCI philosophies and practices that exist in the ever expanding global community [1]. Additionally, previous work recognizes the need to prepare professionals academically in a more robust and structured way to grow user experience (UX) capacity in organizations [1]. One response to the evolution of HCI [2] is to consider educational programs that will provide both structure and mechanisms to navigate the complexity of the field. In this article, I propose such a framework in support of the HCI Living Curriculum initiative.

back to top  Insights


Recently, I completed a two-year project, co-creating the HCI curriculum at Iowa State University (ISU) [3]. The HCI program at ISU is part of the Virtual Reality Application Center (VRAC), which provides HCI education for students from ISU’s eight colleges and two schools. In this role, I saw the challenges of developing a rigorous research program for a STEM-oriented multidisciplinary graduate degree that embraced students from all undergraduate programs, none of which were HCI. There was the additional challenge of balancing the “I need these skills now” demand from those students in industry with the “I have this really cool idea for technology” excitement from the full-time engineering and computer science students. These demands appear to be conflicting motivations, yet all of the students are seeking some level of HCI education. I believe this experience is representative of the larger challenge facing the HCI Living Curriculum. At our discipline’s core are humanist values, namely values that place importance on understanding and accounting for phenomena that impact humans. Generally, this core serves the field quite well in research and practice, providing a wide variety of perspectives pulled together by a shared set of drivers. But at this time in HCI’s maturation, the vastly varied phenomena associated with the human impact of this field cannot provide the structure and guidance needed to navigate the education demands.

John Long and John Dowell stated that a disciplinary field is “the use of knowledge to support practices seeking solutions to a general problem having a particular scope” [4]. To build on this concept and put the problem of our ever-expanding discipline into business language, HCI education calls for a healthy dose of scope management. I propose that the HCI Living Curriculum effort may achieve structure and guidance as well as growth by embracing action to move beyond the philosophical debate about HCI as a field or a philosophy and provide practical sets of curricular structures that our practitioners and scholars can share.

In order to really understand this recommendation, it is helpful to first briefly explain the key issues in the state of HCI as a discipline.

back to top  HCI As a Complex Field

The depiction of the field as seen in two classic figures (Figures 1 and 2) illustrates the shift from simple to complex. Figure 1 depicts HCI in the 1992 curriculum from ACM SIGCHI. What was an excellent depiction at the time now has evolved into a much more complex depiction of HCI with John Carroll’s use of Dan Saffer’s image, as shown in Figure 2.

ins02.gif Figure 1. Depiction of HCI as a discipline from the 1992 Curriculum initiative [5].
ins03.gif Figure 2. Carroll’s conception of the HCI discipline [6].

As another example of the growing complexity, a more nuanced understanding of use and context has emerged since 1992 (Figure 1). One need only look at the CHI 2016 program to find a breadth of uses, ranging from death to interacting in the wild, and contexts that range from the kitchen to the crowd. Each use and context demands a curriculum in its own right.

In an attempt to understand the ramifications of complex systems in traditional academic fiefdoms, William Newell and Julie Thompson Klein [7] discussed the effects of interdisciplinary studies in the 21st century on higher education institutions. They stressed the shift from simple systems to complex ones. Simple systems are structured with linear connections and rely on hierarchy. Complex systems, on the other hand, may contain simple systems but are not based on linear connections. Further, “[t]he interaction of genuine or perceived incompatibilities gives complex systems their unique unstable behaviors” [7]. Clearly, HCI, once a simple system, is now complex; the challenges found in recent SIGCHI education research [1] are indications of this shift.

In the case of a model with tightly coupled structural relationships in complex systems, no one variable in a model that depicts the HCI discipline—whether you consider the five categories included in the 1992 curriculum or the 40-plus focus areas in Saffer’s model—can be treated in isolation. The variables impact each other and overlap. As a result, we need a different approach to how we design HCI curricula. In every syllabus shared on the SIGCHI education webpages (, mastery of either methods or theories is the primary learning goal. Methods reflect a truth that our community has adopted, as Carroll argued, “conceptions of how underlying science informs and is informed by the worlds of practice and activity [that] have evolved continually in HCI since its inception” [8]. Methods, as described in the syllabi and considering Carroll’s comments, could be the “HCI sensibility” that Churchill et al. suggest [1], while the theory parts of the syllabi are the HCI-centric elements that support our field. My “purposed” framework for the Living Curriculum allows for a both/and rather than an either/or approach to HCI curricula. The purposed framework supports both the HCI-sensible and the HCI-centric. It also suggests a blending of disciplinary boundaries for portions of the curriculum for a specific educational need or purpose.

back to top  A Purposed Framework

The purposed framework consists of three major concepts: (1) foundation (2) transparency layers and (3) curricular structures.

Purposed framework—foundation. The foundation of the purposed framework is based on the two major parts of the field that HCI curricula tend to incorporate: HCI-sensible courses, where the primary focus is on application and practice—methods, procedures, and so on—and HCI-centric courses, where the primary focus is on HCI theory, models, research, and so on. In Figure 3, the gray boxes represent the time spent or the number of credit hours dedicated to courses that are HCI-sensible as compared with courses that are HCI-centric. This diagram offers one suggestion of how the breakdown of time spent in HCI-sensible and HCI-centric might look for each degree type.

ins04.gif Figure 3. Purposed framework—foundation.
  • The undergraduate students seeking HCI courses are usually coming from other domains (as only five undergraduate HCI programs exist in the world; Undergraduates mostly seek a way to test software or assess the impact of their technology on humans, hence the larger portion of the gray box in the HCI-sensible area. However, they need an introduction to the fundamentals of the HCI field, hence the small part of the gray box in the HCI-centric box.
  • Practitioners are usually in need of immediately applicable knowledge. In my experience in industry, practitioners have little tolerance for theory without a clear path to application. The practitioner HCI courses are therefore predominantly in the HCI-sensible area.
  • Full-time HCI master’s students may be fully immersed in an HCI program and require both HCI theory (HCI-centric) as well as methods and practices (HCI-sensible). Hence the proportion in HCI-sensible and HCI-centric is almost 50/50.
  • Finally, the Ph.D. students may have the strongest potential eventually to grow the field. Thus, they require an HCI-centric curriculum rich in theory. Although the Ph.D. gray box is predominantly within the HCI-centric area, HCI-sensible courses are still needed to connect theory to practice.

Purposed framework—transparency layers. In considering co-major curricular models, we can imagine handling various disciplines somewhat like those old-fashioned projectors on which teachers placed layers of transparencies. Each discipline would have its own transparency mapping the core knowledge hubs of that discipline. The beginning of the HCI discipline map might look like Figure 4, where each box is a knowledge hub for the HCI-centric and HCI-sensible parts. For the HCI-centric focus, Carroll provides a wonderful set of possible knowledge hubs in [9]. For an HCI-sensible focus, courses on sites such as ( and UX Matters ( provide possible knowledge hubs.

ins05.gif Figure 4. Purposed framework—transparency layers. A possible HCI discipline knowledge map.

Purposed framework—curricular structures. The both/and approach also allows for variability of the curricular structure for students seeking greater customization. Let’s take, for example, a master’s student who is co-majoring in HCI. These students vary in the amount of credits that they can allocate toward HCI, as it might simply be augmenting their primary field. I propose that the HCI Living Curriculum could offer curricular structures for each possible co-discipline: Instead of courses focusing either solely on HCI or solely on another discipline, we make courses that combine HCI topics and the other discipline’s topics for a portion of the students’ total curriculum. Figure 5 shows a few examples of the common use cases for master’s students seeking some degree of HCI education and illustrates how the curriculum structures could be bound. The combined courses that I propose are the “mixed applied courses,” which focus on the application aspects of both HCI and the other discipline, and the “advanced co-major courses,” which focus on relationships between the theories of the two disciplines.

ins06.gif Figure 5. Purposed framework—curricular structures.

Curricular structure 1. This may consist of only the HCI discipline transparency layer (Figure 4). The HCI Living Curriculum Committee could have an agreed upon set of HCI knowledge hubs on both the HCI-sensible and HCI-centric side, and recommend a 50/50 curriculum for curricular structure 1.

Curricular structure 2. In considering this structure, imagine a student co-majoring in an HCI curriculum who wants to dedicate his research focus to developing virtual spaces that promote collaboration among experts in the field of biology. From the HCI transparency layer, the relevant HCI-centric knowledge hubs for this student might be introduction to HCI, collaborative technologies, and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), along with the HCI-sensible hubs of user research, visual design, and interaction design. Looking at curricular structure 2 (Figure 5), these courses would be the gray box. Now, overlay a transparency layer for the field of biology. Mapping the biology field transparency on top of the HCI transparency, the HCI Living Curriculum could look for similar relevant theories as well as opportunities for blending between the two domains. Then, through the crowdsourcing techniques discussed in the original committee proposal, create/recommend options could be offered for the mixed applied courses and the advanced co-major courses (yellow boxes) so that the student may better design for and ultimately serve the online community of biologists. Given the wide variety of possible co-major scenarios, I imagine there will be multiple curricular structure 2 options.

Curricular structure 3. Last, imagine an engineering student focused on wearable technologies. If she were seeking a master’s degree in a computer science program, the HCI Living Curriculum effort would offer curricular structure 3 to that computer science program. Part of the recommended curricular structure would contain how many classes and which classes that student would need to have an HCI-sensible and basic HCI-centric understanding. In addition, the committee could collaborate with that computer science program to create the mixed applied courses by overlaying the computer science transparency layer on top of the HCI transparency layer and looking for relevant and connected theories/practices between the fields.

Tying the curricular-structures concept together, the more domain expertise that is required, the more complicated it will be to create courses that achieve that expertise while considering the traditional credit limits in each academic program. If a student needs more HCI-sensible courses and is not co-majoring (curricular structure 1), the recommendation may be to cover more of the HCI knowledge hubs on the HCI transparency layer. If the student needs more HCI-sensible courses and is co-majoring (curricular structure 2 or 3), the HCI Living Curriculum may recommend traversing less of the HCI transparency layer and making strong connections to other discipline layers. The key here is that, in both cases, where a student either covers more of the HCI transparency layer or makes more connections to other fields, the contribution to the HCI field will potentially be more profound and lasting compared with that of students who traverse less of the HCI transparency layer and make fewer connections.

Limitations of the framework. While the framework covers many multidisciplinary situations, it is worth noting that my background and bias is toward STEM education in the U.S. Therefore, the framework may not adequately account for non-STEM programs and programs outside the U.S.

back to top  Conclusion

To summarize, in order for the HCI Living Curriculum initiative to be successful, it must first embrace the fact that HCI is a complex field. With that in mind, the curriculum committee could collaborate with the HCI community (scholars and practitioners alike) to make curricular structure options for the various scenarios at each institution. Creating the disciplinary transparency layers is key and will require a crowd-sourced effort by members of the HCI community and other disciplines. The charge of the HCI Living Curriculum Committee is to create the online communities by which members may seamlessly contribute to the crafting of the layers. Once the layers exist, we can go about connecting the knowledge hubs of each layer with the goal of creating possible co-discipline courses that can fit into each curricular structure. The result of such an initiative will be a healthy set of curricular options that may serve educators and students while providing structure that is critical to fortify the foundation and connectivity of our field.

I do not take lightly the difficulty in creating co-discipline courses in institutions that are currently still dominated by disciplinary fiefdoms and all of the associated funding challenges. Nor am I naive about the challenges of infusing traditional academic courses with more applied-industry-focus objectives. The creation of such courses is critical to the success of my purposed framework and will be addressed in subsequent articles. As its name suggests, the Living Curriculum Committee effort will be an ever-evolving project, and the approach will need to be reevaluated periodically. I look forward to contributing to this noteworthy endeavor.

back to top  References

1. Churchill, E., Preece, J., and Bowser, A. Developing a living HCI curriculum to support a global community. Proc. of CHI’ 14 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2014. DOI:10.1145/2559206.2559236

2. While the field referred to in this paper is called human-computer interaction (HCI), there are other names by which it is known to institutions and practitioners, such as human-centered interaction, human-centered design, and interaction design (IxD). Additionally, the research and concepts extend to the overarching umbrella field and/or practice of user experience (UX).

3. I acknowledge my co-creators in the ISU HCI curriculum redesign effort: Dr. Stephen Gilbert, Dr. Les Miller, Dr. Ana-Paula Correia, Pam Shil, and Hannah Deering.

4. Long, J. and Dowell, J. Conceptions of the discipline of HCI: Craft, applied science, and engineering. In People and Computers V: Proc. of the Fifth Conference of the British Computer Society. A. Sutcliffe and L. Macauley, eds. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, England, 1989, 9–32.

5. Hewett, T., Baecker, R., Card, S., Carey, T., Gasen, J., Mantei, M., Perlman, G., Strong, G., and Verplank, W. ACM SIGCHI Curricula for Human-Computer Interaction. ACM, 1992, 26;

6. Carroll, J.M. Conceptualizing a possible discipline of human-computer interaction. Interacting with Computers 22, 1 (2010), 3–12;

7. Newell, W.H. and Klein, J.T. Interdisciplinary studies into the 21st century. Journal of General Education 45 (1996), 152–169;

8. Carroll, J.M. Human-computer interaction: Brief intro. In The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd. ed.) M. Soegaard and R.F. Dam, eds., 2013;

9. Carroll, J.M., ed. HCI Models, Theories and Frameworks: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco, 2003.

back to top  Author

Andrea Peer is an applied social scientist, user experience researcher, and interactive technology designer with a background in engineering, software development, psychology, and organizational management. Her specific area of research is dedicated to examining how organizations can grow their UX capacity. Currently she leads the Onboarding experience at UserZoom.

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