CMSC 434 Spring 2014 Course Syllabus


This is the only course in the undergrad computer science catalog with the word human in its title. This is not insignificant. In this course we will reposition ourselves to think about computer science not just in terms of algorithmic performance and technical sophistication but in terms of how technology can be perceived, used, and adopted by people. By placing humans at the center of our design focus rather than technology, our concerns shift in interesting and, hopefully, illuminating ways. For example, there are many ways to design and build a user-facing application—how do we know which path is the right one? What methods and guidelines can we apply to maximize our chances that our design is the most useful, usable, and enjoyable? In this class, you will learn to ideate, critique, prototype, evaluate, design and refine interactions, interfaces and applications for people.

What You Can Expect from Me

You can expect that:
  • I will try to challenge you in this class: your thinking, your approach to design, your view of CS.
  • I will try to make my lectures engaging and to make the best use of class time through teacher-student interactions, discussions, and other activities.
  • I will do my best to help you succeed.

What I Expect from You

I am expecting that:
  • You come prepared to each class (e.g., materials read, homework done)
  • You contribute to the classroom environment by offering your own insights and perspectives on topics
  • You participate fully in your four-person project team
  • You are willing to put in the work this semester, which is necessary to realize the full potential of this class


The general aims of this course are to:
  1. Develop an appreciation for the theory and methods of interaction design and human-computer interaction
  2. Develop skills in the practice of user-centered design, including usability evaluation and project presentation
  3. Improve individual and collaborative skills in design-based problem solving and critical thinking


On the successful completion of this course, you should be able to:
  1. Given a problem setting, critically discuss the appropriateness of potential design methodologies such as contextual design, scenario-based design, participatory design, etc.
  2. Describe the issues and challenges to achieving a human-centered design process
  3. Gather useful information about users and activities through observation or systematic inquiry
  4. Use, adapt and extend classic design standards, guidelines, and patterns
  5. Employ selected design methods at a basic level of competence: affinity diagrams, card sorting, scenarios of use, personas, storyboarding, sketching, and usability evaluation
  6. Create an interactive prototype for a small system and plan and perform an evaluation of that prototype


This course will utilize two main forms of communication: the class webpage and Piazza. Piazza is an online discussion board built specifically to increase the efficiency of course-based discussions. It democratizes question and answer loops by exposing student questions to the classroom and allowing everyone to participate in an answer. This process, hopefully, increases learning for everyone involved and leads to faster response times for the student (as the professor and TA are not the only ones who can respond). If you send me or the TAa question or comment via email that I think has broader implications/value for the class, I will post it directly to Piazza. So, in most cases, it’s more efficient for you to simply post directly to Piazza. I will obviously not do this for email that is private (or where you specifically ask me not to).

Our class Piazza page is:

Meethu (the TA) and I will make every effort to respond to emails and Piazza posts at least once a day. If we do not respond within 24 hours, feel free to send the email again. Note: it’s unlikely that you will receive an email response from me after 8PM so plan ahead!

Books and Resources

There are some excellent textbooks, including two that are authored or co-authored by professors here at UMd. They are good resources, but in this class, we are going to pull selected readings from a range of HCI and design books. We will also be reading materials that are available online. I will make all readings available via PDF or web links.


This is largely a design and usability class. Unlike most other CS classes there is not always a single "correct" design solution. Usually there are many possible designs with different advantages and disadvantages. In this class, you will learn to both design new interfaces and critically evaluate the interfaces you (and others in the class) design. A significant portion of the grading in this class will be qualitative, including assessments of the end user experience of the system and the quality of your designs, evaluations, and prototypes.

The class will be a more rewarding experience if everyone actively participates. I expect you to come to class prepared to contribute constructively to discussions, ask challenging questions, and participate in in-class activities. Outside of class, you can participate by posting useful or interesting information on the course discussion website or visiting the instructor or TA during office hours to ask questions or give feedback. At the end of the term, you are welcome to submit a 1-2 paragraph personal statement on how you contributed to the class. This statement is entirely optional and is due by the beginning of class on the day of the final project presentations.

Summary of Assessment

  • Individual assignments (15%)
  • Midterm Exam (15%)
  • Group project (45%)
  • Reading responses and quizzes (15%)
  • Class participation (10%)

Individual Assignments (15%)

Unless specified by the instructor, assignments must be completed independently. Assignments are due by the beginning of class on their due date.

Late Assignments. If you need to miss a deadline, you should inform the instructor as soon as possible, indicating when you will submit your work. The instructor will try to accommodate your needs. You should use this clause only for extraordinary personal reasons (e.g., personal illness, death in the family, etc.).

The general policy is that late work will be deducted 20% of its total grade per calendar day, starting on the same day it is due. It is at the instructor’s discretion to accept late work and assign late penalties.

Midterm Exam (15%)

There will be a midterm exam, which will cover all content leading up to the midterm exam date. See the schedule on the course website for details. Note: we will be using the final exam slot for group project presentations.

Group Project (45%)

The group project will, hopefully, be the most educational and rewarding experience of the class. In the real world, software and technology is almost always the product of a multidisciplinary team. No matter what industry you enter after graduation, you will likely have to work on a team. In addition, you will find that being able to effectively communicate your ideas and visions will greatly impact how those ideas are received and acted upon. The group project will give you experience in working on a team and experience in communicating your ideas not only to fellow team members but also to the class through in-class studio style critiques, presentations, project documents, and videos. Late videos and presentations are not acceptable. The policy for all other late project deliverables is the same as for assignments.

For the deliverables uploaded to the wiki, you need not use your real name. You are free to choose a pseudonym and use that on your project deliverables.

Reading Responses and Quizzes (15%)

Most of what you need to learn in this class will be covered in lecture. However, we only meet twice a week for 75 minutes. As such, there is not enough time to cover everything and certainly not to depth. So, occasionally, I will assign readings and reading responses. There will be roughly one or two readings each week with a lighter load later in the semester as we shift our focus to finishing the projects. Note: sometimes the readings are actually videos or podcasts :)

For the reading responses, you must type up a one-to-two paragraph reaction on Piazza. Each reading will have its own "reading response" thread on Piazza. If you want to submit an "anonymous" reading response on Piazza, feel free to do so. Simply select the option "anonymous to classmates but not to teacher" when you submit the post.

Class Participation (10%)

I expect you to come to class and actively contribute. I want to hear your voice in discussions. Help enrich this class! Class participation involves contributing to classroom discussions, submitting Hall of Fame/Hall of Shame interfaces, and submitting inspirations.

To capture those discussions, I will ask for two volunteer scribes for each class period. Scribes will take notes which will then be posted on the class wiki, along with the slide deck for that period. Note-taking is an essential skill for user observation, and being a scribe will contribute to your class participation evaluation.

Policies and Procedures

Class Participation and Classroom Decorum

Our classroom is a safe harbor for free expression, discussion and creativity. In order to gain full value from this positive, creative environment, our discussions and in-classroom brainstorms must be conducted respectfully. Antagonism between students will not be tolerated nor will unnecessary classroom disruption.

Laptops / iPads in the Classroom

My hope is that you can use your laptop/iPad in class to, on occasion, augment the materials in class (e.g., by actively searching for additional content that may supplement a discussion point made in the classroom). However, the downside of allowing laptops is that they are a tempting distraction that may pull you away from being present and active participants in the class. If you have your laptop out and I observe that you are involved in activities unrelated to the classroom, you will lose the privilege of classroom laptop usage at my discretion.

Academic Integrity

The short of it is: be inspired, be disciplined, be prepared, and don’t cheat. I really don’t expect that we will have problems with academic integrity. Perhaps the most prominent issue that you will face in this class is plagiarism and proper citation usage. That is, if you use someone else’s words or thoughts in your writing, they must be properly referenced. A foundation of science and scholarship is citation—as Sir Isaac Newton famously uttered: “stand on the shoulder of giants.” I have no problem with you incorporating ideas and perspectives from other authors as long as you cite them. In fact, I encourage it.

Further details from the University of Maryland Teaching Resources Guide: The University of Maryland, College Park has a nationally recognized Code of Academic Integrity, administered by the Student Honor Council (see: This Code sets standards for academic integrity at Maryland for all undergraduate and graduate students. As a student you are responsible for upholding these standards for this course. It is very important for you to be aware of the consequences of cheating, fabrication, facilitation, and plagiarism. For more information on the Code of Academic Integrity or the Student Honor Council, please visit Any violation of the University’s policy on Academic Integrity will result in severe penalties, which may range from failing an assignment to failing a course (to other possibly even more severe measures).

Course Evaluation Form

Towards the end of the quarter, you will have an opportunity to fill out a course evaluation form (a CourseEvalUM). Great learning experiences, like great software, are the result of understanding customers and adapting based on feedback. You are benefitting from feedback by students of previous classes. So I respectfully request your time to fill out this form. Using your thoughtful feedback on the CourseEvalUM, I can, first, better assess areas that I need to improve on as an instructor. This is important to me. Second, your feedback will allow me to refine and iterate upon the course material. As you will learn from this course, the process of iteration is intrinsic to the construction of almost any artifact (this course included). Third, the University and the department look to your input as an important aspect of instructor evaluation. Thus, if you didn’t like the class—say something. If you did, say something as well. This is one way to have a direct impact on improving a course and the CS department at UMD as a whole. Thanks.

Here’s the official CourseEvalUM text that the University suggests instructors use in their syllabi (it contains more details on the course evaluation process): “Your participation in the evaluation of courses through CourseEvalUM is a responsibility you hold as a student member of our academic community. Your feedback is confidential and important to the improvement of teaching and learning at the University as well as to the tenure and promotion process. CourseEvalUM will be open for you to complete your evaluations starting about two weeks prior to the last day of the term before exams begin. Please go directly to the website ( to complete your evaluations. By completing all of your evaluations each semester, you will have the privilege of accessing online evaluation reports for the thousands of courses for which 70% or more students submitted their evaluations. You can access results at, the same link you use to submit your evaluations. Click View Past Results instead.”

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

If you think you need an accommodation for a disability, please let me know at your earliest convenience. Some aspects of this course, the assignments, the in-class activities, and the way we teach may be modified to facilitate your participation and progress. As soon as you make me aware of your needs, we can work with Disability Support Service (DSS) to help us determine appropriate accommodations. Disability Support Service coordinates services that ensure individuals with disabilities equal access to University of Maryland College Park programs. DSS can be reached at 301-314-7682 and

Connecting via Social Media (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn)

Social networks and emerging forms of media offer new opportunities for interaction. However, I will not accept a LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+ friend request from a student until the semester has ended and grades have been posted (and even then, this is on a case-by-case basis). I do find it valuable to maintain connections to my students, and these social networks are one great way to do that but only after the semester has ended. :)