This course is intended to make you an effective, professional system designer and analyst. We assume you already have a strong background some aspect of computer system design. This course builds upon it in a few specific ways:

  • Work from data. Many of us have good intuitions about design, but we all need to ground our work on the real needs of users and the obstacles they perceive in achieving their goals.
  • Work in teams. Whatever your skills, you need the skills of others to be effective.
  • Communication. Even when you know what should be done, many contexts demand that you convince others using numbers, pictures, or stories.


  • Usabilty Aspect Reports: A way to communicate system issues.
  • Heuristic evaluation in which an expert evaluator identifies likely problems in a product or service.
  • Think aloud protocols to evaluate how people are using a product or service.
  • Interviews to hear about goals, problems and opinions in the users' own words.
  • Survey design and analysis to summarize beliefs about user needs or product judgments from a large group of potential users.
  • Web analytics and log analysis to understand how people are using a website or an instrumented application.
  • Experimentation and A/B testing to identify which version of a design works better.
  • Competitive analysis of existing products and services.
  • Contextual Design (CD). 
    • Observing Users
    • Interpreting Observations into Notes and Models
    • Organizing Notes into Affinity Diagrams
    • Consolidating Models
    • Creating Visions
    • Presenting Designs

Communication Technology

We are using a lot of technology to administer the course. Take some time to learn about it.

  • We will use Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for many things. MHCI students and undergrads with active SCS accounts can get access to one copy of Office for personally owned machines.
  • We'll use the Andrew email address given to you by the University to identify you unambiguously. If you read your mail in another place, e.g. gmail, please use these instructions to forward your Andrew email there. (If you insist on using a non-Andrew email address, let us know.)
  • You need a Google account. We will use drive, calendar, spreadsheets, groups, and forms. Carnegie Mellon provides Google services; but, to avoid confusion, we'll use the publicly available Google.
  • There is a Google calendar named UCRE  reminding you of readings, lectures, sections, assignment due dates, etc. You can add it to your personal Google calendar, if you have one.
  • A Google group, UCRE 2014, will be used for questions and discussion. It is best to ask questions there so the answers are available to all. You can use email to contact instructors and TA’s directly. If you do not want the answer to be posted on the group, label the mail confidential. Email will also be used for time-sensitive announcements.
  • A peer-reviewing system, Coursemark, will be used to handle assignments. Follow these instructions to get started. 
  • This site is the primary source of course information, but some material is also accessible at  Holtzblatt_Videos, and Rapid_Contextual_Design_Book.
  • When assignments are performed by teams, we'll use a system, CATME, to create the teams and collect peer feedback.

Class Meetings

There are lectures on Mondays, except for the week of 9/1 when the lecture is on Wednesday, 9/3.  The room is Scaife Hall 125, an auditorium on the south-western corner of the campus. There will be a 15-minute quiz in nearly every lecture; a recent study showed that such quizzes enhance learning. You should bring a laptop or other device to lectures. You need them to answer the quiz questions. You are also free to use them to supplement the lecture, but we hope you'll focus on learning and not get distracted by email, etc.

In the Wednesday section meetings you’ll practice applying the methods with the guidance of your section leader and instructors.

 Meeting  Day  Time  Room
 Lecture  M  12:00-13:20   SH 125
 Section A  W  12:00-13:20  GHC 4301
 Section B  W  12:00-13:20  SCR 201
 Section C  W  13:30-14:50  GHC 4301
 Section D  W  13:30-14:50  SCR 201
 Section E  W  12:00-13:20  SCR 172

Books and Readings

All required and recommended course readings are listed in the course schedule and assignments. We have tried to reduce required reading to a minimum. The optional readings are also valuable and provide useful perspective on why you are doing things. Readings and videos should be completed before the lecture they precede in the calendar. A significant portion of the required readings are from two texts. Other readings are available in PDF format as links from the schedule.

  • Required Text: Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M., & Moed, A. (2012). Observing the User Experience, Second Edition: A Practitioner's Guide to User Research. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufman.
  • Required Text: Beyer, H. & Holtzblatt, K. (1998).  
    Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. Morgan Kaufmann: San Francisco, CA. ISBN 1-55860-411-1. Hereafter abbreviated to CD. An online copy can be accessed through the library's ebrary system here (requires you to make a free account and probably requires you to be on campus).
  • Optional TextThe UX Book: Process and Guidelines for Ensuring a Quality User Experience by Rex Hartson and Pardha Pyla (2012)You can buy or rent a hard copy of this book with free shipping from Amazon or a buy or rent a Kindle edition, which you can read on multiple devices. 
  • Optional Text: Holtzblatt, K., Wendell, J. B., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid Contextual Design: A How-To-Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design. Elsevier, Inc.: San Francisco, CA. ISBN 0-12-354051-8. Hereafter abbreviated to RCD. It is available here to UCRE students.

Peer Reviewing

For each assignment, you will be asked to review the work of some other, randomly chosen, unknown classmates. This helps your learning in two ways: you receive feedback from more people, and you see how other people do the work. 

Each assignment comes with a  rubric to guide your review and, implicitly, suggest how to create a quality submission yourself. Reviewers give numerical ratings to each aspect, but your grade is decided independently by the instructors after reviewing everything, including the reviews you provided of others' work. We expect you to spend about thirty minutes reviewing each classmate’s assignment. We will be grading your understanding of the material as reflected in your comments to your classmates.

This process creates two requirements:

  • Each submission needs to anonymous. Leave your names of whatever you submit.
  • Late assignments can't participate because you need to finish your own work before looking at others.  Your TA might be willing to grade a late submission without it's having any peer reviews.

We use the system Coursemark to handle the communication tasks. 

Acknowledgments vs. Cheating

In all your work, you should use sources of information beyond the required ones, including personal contacts, outside faculty, websites, and news sources, and then acknowledge them in a specific section labeled “Acknowledgements”. Specify each source well enough that we can check it. We will reward you for using sources of help and penalize you for using none. Explicitly required UCRE sources, i.e. the books, videos, and instructors, need not be acknowledged. If you cut and paste content from elsewhere, then use quotation marks and cite. Copying without citation is called plagiarism, and is considered professional misconduct and cheating.

Not acknowledging help in any form is an ethical or professional failure. You should submit your own work, making use of data you or your team gathers as appropriate. Even if you think you might have received inappropriate help, e.g. having someone else contribute too much to a report, describe it in the acknowledgements; and we’ll not accuse you of cheating, even if we think it was inappropriate.

Should any student be found guilty of cheating on a quiz, exam, or assignment, the University will be notified. Additionally, depending on the circumstances, and at the discretion of the instructor and the Department Head, the student may be failed in the course and may be expelled from the University. A student can appeal any faculty decision to the University Committee on Discipline.


There might be a mid-term exam, if the quizzes don't work out; but there is no final exam. There will be final presentations in the scheduled final exam time. 


Your final grade will be computed from the various kinds of grades weighted as follows.

 Performance on Assignments  70%
 Performance on Quizzes  25%
 Active Participation  5%

The assignment grades include the quality of your reviews as well as the submissions, divided roughly as 70% for the submission and 30% for the review. For team assignments, your submission grade may be adjusted based on a intra-team reviews.  The participation grade is for generally contributing to the class's learning. Aside from contributing to discussions in class and the UCRE 2014 discussion group, you get credit for finding problems in course materials or software. 

Work Load

This is a 12-unit course, meaning you should spend about 12 hours a week on it, including the three hours spent in lecture and section. Most readings and assignments will have time estimates attached.

An idealized, weekly, 12-hour schedule might be:

  • Sunday: Read text. (1.5 hours)
  • Monday: Attend lecture. (1.5 hours)
  • Monday/Tuesday: Review others’ work on previous assignment. (2 hours)
  • Monday/Tuesday: Work on assignment. (1.5 hours)
  • Wednesday: Attend section meeting. (1.5 hour)
  • Wednesday-Saturday: Finish assignment and submit. (4 hours).

If you find yourself spending significantly more time than suggested, you should tell us.

Checklist for First Week

  • Get books.
  • Check email forwarding, if needed.
  • Check registration on the Google Group; you should receive emails from it.
  • Log into Coursemark; you should receive an email with a password.