New course – Studio in Human-Centered Systems Design

I am excited to be designing an undergraduate course that combines several of my passions – systems analysis, design methods, project-based learning and a critical, reflective pedagogy. I have been doing the first two for most of my career, first in the software industry and then in my academic teaching. I’ve been using project-based learning since I started teaching. The critical pedagogy aspect is more recent, and reflects my developing consciousness of how privilege and inequity are systematized in subtle and insidious ways – in both the socio-technical systems that we design as well as the way we teach in higher education.

I’ve been noodling on these ideas for a while. I was inspired to make them concrete by folks at the Future of Learning Institute and the Flipped Classroom – a big Thank You to them! I appreciate your thoughts, ideas and suggestions as I work on this draft…

I have two goals for the course: First, to help students develop practical skills that will be valuable regardless of their career – systems thinking, design methods and the skills broadly labeled “critical thinking”. Second, to counter in a small but meaningful way systems of oppression that permeate our society and institutions, and result in invisible privilege that underlies deep inequities. I want to model good practice so that students both develop essential skills and see how they can be applied in diverse contexts in their own lives. I especially want them to develop confidence in their ability to take charge of their learning. Along the way I can show them an experienced professional working to unpack his own baggage. I am reminded – on the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death and the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots – of how resilient systems of oppression and privilege are, and how important it is that we work to dismantle them. Education is key.

The course builds on the project-based learning that I use in my User Interface Design and Evaluation course. Successful projects engage us with community partners on meaningful, collaborative projects that benefit both the community and the students. In this new course, I will extend the project be the basis of the entire course. The readings and lectures will be designed to introduce just enough content knowledge at just the right time to enable students to *do* the project work, instead of trying to provide comprehensive coverage of the topics. My rationale is that once they have a certain basic knowledge, successful learning depends much more on the practice of doing and reflecting than on specific techniques or methods.

This will be the first time I’m teaching an undergraduate course, and I have two questions that I am particularly looking for feedback on:

  • I anticipate that this approach will differ from students’ past learning experiences. Where are they likely to encounter difficulties or roadblocks?
  • What forms of scaffolding and support are they likely to benefit from?

Here’s a description of the course and my approach to the main project. I’ll be developing this into a full syllabus:

Course description

Sophisticated information communications technology (ICT) systems make possible near-instantaneous communication (Twitter, texting), global communities like Facebook, space exploration, the ever-increasing distribution of knowledge and capital, online commerce, etc. They also enable cybercrime, privacy abuse and increasing social isolation. They can make our society immeasurably better, but they can also cause frustration, delay, and wasted dollars on failed or failing systems. More insidiously, our designed systems can reinforce existing inequities and unearned privilege, especially when they are embedded in society’s essential functions like schools, government, and medicine.

To understand how these systems work, don’t work, and work in unexpected (and sometimes undesirable) ways, we must look at more than just their technical elements. One way to do this is to adopt a sociotechnical systems perspective. Complex technical systems are always embedded in social and cultural contexts, so we have to consider the people, organizations and cultures when we are analyzing or designing them. Whether large or small, international or local, systems are designed by people to achieve one or more goals, which they do with greater or lesser success. They are built based on knowledge, assumptions and often biases. For better or worse, they reflect the values and voice of the designers.

This course will help you develop the ability to analyze, critique and advocate for changes to ICTs, using skills that have come to be called systems thinking and design thinking. We will explore the design process as a means to identify and solve problems. We also use it as a structure for critically reflecting on values embedded in systems, building community and increasing access and equity to resources.


Collaboratively exploring different types of systems (Photo: Anita Chen)

As an instructor, I bring deep expertise in systems analysis, human-centered design and user interface design. As students, you bring experiences, knowledge (including subject areas that I know little about) and many other skills. Together, we will form a learning community to explore essential questions about socio-technical systems and their design. We will start with questions like:

  • What is a system? What makes systems succeed or fail?
  • What is the design process?
  • How do systems embed and reflect the values and voices of the designers?
  • Who benefits from the design of a particular system and who doesn’t?
  • As (co)designers how can we help improve a system for an individual, community or beyond?
  • What types of systems analysis and design techniques and practices are beneficial for various situation and participants?

We will initially focus – because of my experience and background – on the analysis and design of software systems, with a particular emphasis on human aspects. As we move through the course, you may choose to focus on different types of systems, depending on your interests.

This course is based on a studio model. Throughout the semester, you will engage in teams with real-world collaborators on a project that is important to them. You will work as co-designers to explore challenges and potential solutions. I will work closely with your team to provide guidance and direction, and you will be working directly with the client or community member through multiple cycles of exploration and design.

Community-based design project

The project is an essential part of the course. We will start it the second week of class and work through the semester as you iteratively explore the problem and possible solutions with your community partners or clients. You will work in teams of 3-6, partnering with a member of our community or client.

For this semester I have identified one possible design project [will insert description here – this will vary by semester depending on community partners].


Working the design process

Our design methodology is grounded in a collaborative, participatory co-design model with the community and experts. It extends the Participatory Design model that has evolved from human-centered design. It also builds on the Community Inquiry model as developed by Rhinesmith and Wolske (2014). Don’t worry if you these terms aren’t familiar – we will be studying and applying them over the semester. Besides providing a great learning opportunity and benefiting the community, this approach gives all of us opportunities to explore the ways that technologies intersect with social structures to hinder access and accessibility, or reinforce race, class, gender and other forms of inequality.

We can all work on this project, but if you have a great idea and a community or client, you don’t have to be limited to this project. Projects may address issues in a variety of domains, limited only by the community and experts that you can engage with. I am a subject matter expert in several domains: Software system design, user interface design and higher education. In these domains I can provide specific guidance. I encourage projects in other domains, and will work with you to help identify experts and collaborators when this is feasible. Please contact me no later than the first class – earlier is better so that we have as much time as possible to make this work.


One thought on “New course – Studio in Human-Centered Systems Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s