Course Information

Harvard College/Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: 123971

Term: Spring 2016-2017

Location: Pierce 301 (SEAS)

Meeting Time: Tuesday, Thursday 2:30pm – 4:00pm

Enrollment: Limited to 60; non-college students (e.g., GSD, HBS, GSE) welcome

Prerequisites: CS 50 or some web programming experience

Instructor: Ofra Amir

Course Description: The course covers skills and techniques necessary to design innovative interactive products that are useful, usable and that address important needs of people other than yourself. You will learn how to uncover needs that your customers cannot even articulate. You will also learn a range of design principles, effective creativity-related practices, and techniques for rapidly creating and evaluating product prototypes. You will also have several opportunities to formally communicate your design ideas to a variety of audiences. You will complete two large team-based design projects.

Previous offerings: Spring 2016 (Gajos), Spring 2015 (Gajos), Spring 2014 (Gajos), Spring 2013 (Gajos), Spring 2012 (Gajos), Spring 2011 (Gajos), Spring 2010 (Gajos), Spring 2008 (Stein)

Learning Objectives

  1. Discover. The first question in Design is “What problem should we solve?”. Finding a good problem, particularly one that is important to people other than yourself, is hard because many big problems are so ingrained in people’s lives that they no longer notice them. You will learn the techniques for conducting systematic observations and for analyzing the data from those observations. These techniques will help you identify valuable design opportunities.
  2. Invent. Creativity is about finding solutions that are novel, surprising and valuable. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and practiced. You will learn about the cognitive underpinnings of creativity and you will learn several techniques for managing your creative process.
  3. Design. Once you have an idea for a useful product, you will need to design it to be usable. You will learn the basics of human perception, motor performance, and cognition, as well as a number of design principles, that will help you generate designs for usable interactive systems.
  4. Prototype. Once you have a design, you will want to turn it into something that people can use. We will cover a range of prototyping techniques all the way from paper prototypes (which take just a couple of hours to build) to implementing interactive mobile web applications.
  5. Evaluate. Your first design will never be perfect. We will share with you several techniques for evaluating your designs with real people.
  6. Communicate. As a designer, you need to communicate your findings and ideas to other designers, to clients, to funders, etc. Effective communication will be a big part of your professional success. Besides preparing weekly written reports, you will have at least three opportunities during the course to pitch a product concept to external evaluators (designers, entrepreneurs, etc) and to receive feedback.
  7. Succeed on a team. Working on a team is hard: your life depends on several other people, yet you have no authority to tell them what to do. So what can you do as a team member to help make your team happy and successful? You will learn a few techniques that successful teams use to manage communication and conflict.


The final project will involve building a mobile web applications (primarily using JavaScript with the help of libraries such as jQuery, jQuery Mobile, underscore.js, etc). You have seen all these technologies in CS 50 so if you took CS 50 and enjoyed it, you will do fine in this course. We will have a few lectures to help you expand your web hacking skills and we will have frequent office hours, but we also expect you to learn some of the skills independently. When hacking, Google is your friend. That’s how we all do it.

This said, we welcome students from all years (freshmen through Masters) and concentrations. Most years, only about half of the students in the course are CS concentrators with the rest coming from all parts of Harvard (including HBS, Ed School, KSG, GSD, HSPH and HMS).

Course Policies

  • Studio attendance is mandatory. If you have to miss a studio, you must let your studio leader know in advance, and receive an acknowledgment from the studio leader. You are allowed one excused absence (i.e. reported and acknowledged) for the semester without penalty; thereafter you will receive zero credit for the missed studio. To receive credit for attendance, you must arrive on time.
  • Lecture attendance contributes to your grade. You are expected to attend at least 2/3 of the lectures.
  • Active participation (particularly in studios, but also during lectures) is essential in this class and will contribute to the final grade.
  • Lids down! You may not use laptops, tablets, phones or other electronic devices during the class (either lectures or studios) except when explicitly instructed to do so by the instructor. The evidence is overwhelming: multitasking incurs a cognitive cost, students who take notes on laptops learn less than those who take notes on paper, students in classes where the use of laptops and tablets were prohibited outperformed students who were allowed to use them, laptops adversely impact not only the pople using them, but also those around them. However, you are welcome to knit or sketch, as long as you do it in a way that does not distract those around you.
  • Take your own notes. The slides used in the course are meant to help the instructor get her point across. They are not meant to capture every important concept and they will not be sufficient as study aids. You have to take your own notes. And you have to take them on paper. We recommend notebooks with dotted paper (like this one) — the dots provide just enough of a guide so that you can draw neat sketches, but they do not get in the way of your drawings. DO NOT GET A NOTEBOOK WITH RULED PAPER. It’s really hard to draw in those. If you are looking for something special, see this blog post.


Your course grade will consist of a combination of your grades on your assignments (80%) and professionalism (20%). Professionalism includes class participation, teamwork, adherence to deadlines, completeness of work, collaboration acknowledgements, timely arrival to your studios, etc.

Regrade policy

It is very important to us that all assignments are properly graded. If you believe there is an error in your assignment grading, please submit an explanation in writing to your studio leader (Cc-ing the instructor) within 7 days of receiving the grade. No regrade requests will be accepted orally, and no regrade requests will be accepted more than 7 days after receipt of the initial grade.

Academic Integrity

In general, many activities in the class will be collaborative and we will expect you to work with others. In all cases such collaboration has to be acknowledged. Each assignment and quiz will come with a detailed collaboration policy.

Accommodations for students with disabilities

Students needing academic adjustments or accommodations because of a documented disability must present their Faculty Letter from the Accessible Education Office (Links to an external site.) (AEO) and speak with the professor by the end of the second week of the term. Failure to do so may result in the Course Head’s inability to respond in a timely manner. All discussions will remain confidential, although Faculty are invited to contact AEO to discuss appropriate implementation.