Navigating the Mess

A brief lookback of learning HCI & design at Stanford


About 3 years ago I was in my senior year studying Software Engineering in Shanghai and it was time to figure out the next step of my life. After some books, some meditation and a workshop by IDEO, I decided to take Human-Computer Interaction as my focus, and aim to be an interaction designer. What I only knew at that time is that it seems to resolve the conflicts between my advantage on logic thinking, and childhood dream of art and creativity.

Fortunately I was accepted by a dozen of HCI programs in North America. Stanford was my final choice. For the first time in my life, I crossed the Pacific Ocean to the US, hoping that I would learn all the magic of this emerging area.


The journey started out with two core HCI classes. We were expected to experience a roughly complete iteration of needfinding, brainstorming, prototyping and testing within 10 weeks, and put together a final product. The processes and methods are backed up by academic research and proven to be empirically useful. Though a quick walk-through is great for getting a flavor of how it should be done, many details and issues were not sufficiently explored and discussed. The final products are often times still very early prototypes, far from ready to be released.

The more research side of HCI explores novel interactions, such as tangible interfaces, wearable devices, social computing etc., and studies design tools and processes. Like other areas of CS, the academic world is not too far from the practical reality. Many insights, design guidelines could be directly applied, and it’s not uncommon for research projects to evolve into real products. Some parts of communication and psychology research are also closely related, though they focus on studying the social effects rather than building novel systems. In the class of Prof. Cliff Nass, who sadly passed away last year, I learned the Media Equation, and how human-computer interactions can inform our practices of interpersonal communication. These ideas are quite powerful and inspiring.

The d.school is a special part of Stanford that doesn’t have degree programs and offers classes everyone at Stanford can take via application. It’s also a unique design school, that doesn’t teach typography or any specific skills of making things. Instead, it teaches Design Thinking, which you can apply to design from a mobile app to a non-profit organization. There is a huge overlap between the processes taught in HCI classes and Design Thinking, while d.school classes don’t restrict solutions within the digital space. I took ReDesigning Theater in my third quarter, where we designed more interactive performances by experimenting with space, media and games.

In order to delve deeper into the fuzziness of the design process, I joined the Advanced Needfinding class with students from the graduate Product Design program. The class started with David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. Students are encouraged to discover the things that often go unnoticed, but might be the most critical. Interview and observation techniques from anthropology are employed to understand people. A bunch of frameworks, such as timeline, 2 by 2 diagrams, are introduced to form a toolbox that designers can utilize to analyze the qualitative data. The class has a heavy emphasis on the power of narratives and cultural influence. Both instructors are design consultants who used to work with large corporations to develop innovative product ideas. This class, for the first time, allows me to experience the concrete challenges of approaching people, exploring the problem space, formalizing findings and narrowing down the direction.


At the end of this two-year journey, the landscape has become much clearer. Back to my original goal of becoming an interaction designer, or user experience designer in a tech company, am I on the right track? Or is that even the right goal?

From real-world experience and reading online, I feel that I stand on a higher level of abstraction, but not so much on the details of making things. I don’t have a Dribbble or Behance portfolio full of perfect visual mockups, nor do I spend much time experimenting transitional mobile UIs. I’m working on these skills, but I don’t think that’s where I should focus my full energy on. Many designers from other backgrounds, such as graphic design, can do a much better job. I definitely see values and potentials in what I’ve learned from the journey at Stanford. So where should I sit as a designer?

In one of the Needfinding class, the instructor told us: “Designers from Stanford like you guys, wouldn’t be the best industrial designers, wouldn’t be the best at pushing pixels. What makes you special and important, is the abilities to navigate the mess. With all the messy information around, you are the one who can see the right direction.” I think that is the answer I’ve been looking for.

But where are designers like this in the industry? From what I know, people at IDEO, designer founders at startups, and down the list, product designers, designers who understand product and are critical in the product strategy. I have the impression that such positions, and values of designers with the view of a bigger picture, are still not fully recognized by many. A portfolio is judged visually, more often than the way a designer thinks about the problem space. I’m looking forward to a shift.


Again, among the mess I see a way ahead, still a long way to become a designer I’m envisioning.

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