COMM/INFO 3450 + INFO 4940: Course Syllabus

Fall 2012, 3450: 3 credits, 4940: 4 credits
Web: On Piazza
Email: Use this unless your mail is directed to a specific instructor.
Prerequisites: COMM/INFO 2450 (pre or co), or permission of the instructor.
Schedule: See the course website.

[Overview] [Goals] [Workload and resources] [Assignments] [Grading] [Policies]

Team 3450 contact info

Prof: Dr. Dan Cosley ("DanCo")
301 College Ave., room 114; Office hours TBA
TA: Liz Murnane
301 College Ave., Reimagination Lab
Office Hours: TBA
TA: Victoria Sosik
301 College Ave., Reimagination Lab
Office Hours: TBA
MPS: Eric Swidler
301 College Ave., snap lab
Ugrad: Weili Shi
301 College Ave., snap lab
Ugrad: John (Tae) Lee
301 College Ave., snap lab
Ugrad: Vera Khovanskaya
301 College Ave., snap lab

Course overview

This course is about understanding key issues in the design of computer systems meant to be used by people. HCI shares a number of features with other design disciplines, including the need to effectively communicate with clients, teammates, and stakeholders; the need to understand the properties of the medium of design; the need to be able to generate, evaluate, critique, and justify designs and design ideas; and the need to make tradeoffs among a number of desirable goals in order to create effective solutions to important problems while respecting constraints.

In HCI, the constraints come from many sources, most of which are not technical. Human capabilities, user goals and attitudes, and the context of use shape interfaces and interactions as surely as great technology and creative graphic design. This course will build a base of useful knowledge of the factors that shape interaction design, as well as introduce students to processes that help designers consider these factors when building systems.


The overriding goal in this course is for each student to creatively and thoroughly examine topics related to human computer interaction. There are multiple objectives intended for a wide variety of student backgrounds and goals including:

Note: this course is primarily about teaching the design process and the high-level issues, rather than specific aspects of interface building (e.g., GUI design, web design, icon design, graphic design). We will devote a small amount of time to these topics but they are not the focus of the course. A hands-on studio course in interface/interaction design would be a lot of fun, and Fran�ois Guimbreti�re is piloting one this year. INFO 1300/2300 has some design thoughts, especially around web interfaces. Architecture, DEA, and Art all have design studio classes as well. The Cornell UX Design Club may have additional thoughts on courses that might be useful for students interested broadly in user experience design.

Expected workload

High. This is a project-oriented class, and you can expect to spend 10-12 hours/week outside of class in reading and assignments. Every semester, I get comments that the workload is a little too high for the number of credits. But in general, I find that people learn skills and processes best by doing them, and that takes time. So, we will.

There are four required texts for the class. One is a cheap book that you should already have or be buying for INFO/COMM 2450, the others are available online. I'm tired of mediocre, expensive textbooks.

You may also enjoy some of these optional books and other resources:

This is not an exhaustive list of potentially interesting books, but it's enough for now.

Readings will be posted on the course website at least a week in advance. We will try hard to supplement our readings from websites, blogs, and a few research papers. Do the required readings; ignore them at your peril. I try not to spend time regurgitating readings in class. The intention is that they will provide background that lectures will build on, as well as introduce design concepts and vocabulary that you are expected to use in your own work. More on that next.

Graded assignments

Your grade will have a group and an individual component that take place roughly in parallel throughout the semester. The group component is based on a semester-long project that starts at the end of week 3. It is worth 40% of your grade (30% for students in 4940). The individual component is based on five small weekly assignments worth 5% each and two major portfolio pieces worth a total of 35%. 4940 students also have a substantial individual project worth 10% of their grade.

I am trying something different this semester than in prior years, replacing the midterm and final exam with individual portfolio projects. I'm also removing a smaller group project so the large group project can become a more substantial, finished piece. The intent is to reduce the overall workload while still exercising the course goals and letting you produce useful artifacts for future uses such as demonstrating your learning and skills.

There is also an instructor discretion component where I can adjust your overall grade between 10 percent down and 10 percent up, depending on your attendance, contribution to the group project, thoughtful reflection in self and group evaluation exercises, and overall engagement with the class.

More details below.

Group project: designing and evaluating System Z

This project takes place from week 3 until early in the exam period. Its main goals include:

The group project involves designing the interface to a new system. Groups will choose a problem to address and design the system's interactions, following an iterative design process we will teach in class and that is based on material from the TCUID textbook. This will involve a number of activities:

More details on the requirements for the group projects will be given as the semester progresses. You will be busy, with group deliverables about every two weeks along with your individual work. If you are not able to commit the time to work with a group on a regular, ongoing basis this semester, you should consider taking 3450 at a better time.

You do not have to be a programmer to take this course. Not all groups will implement working versions of their designs, though I hope groups with strong implementation skills will do so in the end. We will make the case that good HCI is interdisciplinary in nature and that teams with members from a variety of backgrounds have advantages. You'll fill out a skills inventory at the beginning of week 3, and the instructors will form groups based on that information. You'll also be meeting with the instructional staff on a regular basis.

One of my pet peeves about group projects is that instructors typically give little guidance about how to interact or proceed, and that we rarely monitor the relative contributions of individuals, leading to slackers, people who work too hard, and other annoying outcomes. Although we still will only give minimal instruction on this, you will conduct regular group evaluations where you tell us -- and each other -- how the group is functioning.

Your HCI portfolio

This semester, you will be creating a portfolio comprised of your individual work using a tool called Behance, which is designed for portfolio construction and presentation. The main goals of the portfoilo are to:

Your portfolio will contain several kinds of items, falling into two main categories. The smaller individual assignments (5% each) include:

The larger assignments (12% each) include three larger portfolio pieces:

Midterm and final exams

These aren't required this year, although I'll make the versions from the 2010 class available for your amuseument.

Miscellaneous/instructor discretion

This will be based on individual portions of group assignments where each member is expected to contribute to the assignment, such as brainstorming, initial design sketches, and heuristic evaluations, occasional in-class exercises and quizzes, attendance (class is a venue where your group will often have time to meet, and you are expected to be here every time), other evidence of participation such as participating in HCI-related experiments and attending talks, and on elements from the self and group evaluations you write.

The default instructor discretion grade will be 0. Bad attendance, poor contribution to group projects, and thoughtless self and group evaluation will make it go down. I hope not to have to give any of those grades. Positive discretion grades are primarily my way to give people who work hard the benefit of the doubt near grade borders.


Grading scale

I grade to a scale, not to a curve, and there are a total of 101 points available.

A90-92.9993-96.9997 and up
FUnder 60.


Assignments are due when called for. 50% penalty for being up to a week late; no credit afterwards. No exceptions except in case of emergency. If a deadline is a hardship for quite a few people (e.g., it conflicts with major test days in other classes that many people are taking), tell me in advance and try to get me to change it for the entire class. In-class work can't be made up. Come to class.

Grade disputes

We will try hard to make grading criteria available along with assignment requirements. You're entitled to a good explanation of why you got the grade you did. However: grading is occasionally subjective, errors are sometimes made in both directions, and in the end it balances out. If you see patterns of unfairness across multiple assignments, then you should talk to me.


Collaboration, academic integrity, cheating

Group assignments are meant to be worked on in groups. They are not meant to be done by one person without review and passed off as the group's work. With each group assignment, there will be a short statement of the contribution of each individual group member.

Individual assignments are meant to be worked on alone.

In both cases, looking things up and getting ideas from other sources is okay, if you cite. Plagiarism (copying of others' work and attempting to pass it off as your own) is not. If you're not sure, you should be worried -- and you can always ask. Check out for more info, but in this class, it will mostly boil down to not copying from sources verbatim, and pointing to any web resources you reference or access when you write or do your projects.

Cheating is lame. It cheapens the experience, and I hate that. If it occurs, I will deal with it in accordance with University policies. That likely means a lowered grade and a report to the office of academic integrity. Don't be That Student. Check out Cornell's code of academic integrity for more info.

Incompletes and withdrawals

Withdrawing from the course after groups have been formed is a serious step that will have a negative impact on your teammates; please decide early if you wish to drop the course. Also, I don't let people add after the third class session; this has never worked well in the past.

As for incompletes, here's a excerpt of an official Cornell statement.

"The symbol of Incomplete is only appropriate when two basic conditions are met:
  1. The student has substantial equity at a passing level in the course with respect to work completed;
  2. The student has been prevented by circumstances beyond his/her control, such as illness or family emergency, from completing all of the course requirements on time."
You don't want to take incompletes. They rarely work well, often lead to academic chicanery, and are especially problematic in a class based on a semester-long group project. So don't plan on getting one, unless something drastic happens to you in the last three weeks of the semester.

Other policies

I respect and uphold University policies and regulations pertaining to the observation of religious holidays; assistance available to the physically handicapped, visually and/or hearing impaired students; plagiarism; sexual harassment; and racial or ethnic discrimination. You are advised to become familiar with the respective University regulations and are encouraged to bring any questions or concerns to my attention.