Memorable Learning Moments at Georgia Tech’s MS HCI Program

At Georgia Tech’s MS-HCI program, interdisciplinary extends beyond the background of students represented. As the degree is offered collaboratively between 4 schools, students have their pick from 100+ elective courses, ranging from departments such as Music Technology to Architecture to Computer Science. Outside of classes, many students conduct research alongside faculty or work as TAs, participate in a summer internship, and attend workshops, talks, and conferences.

A common question that befalls students is: how do they know what to take, and where do they find these opportunities? To help answer this, I asked current students and alumni (n = 34) in a survey to share some of their most memorable classes and learning experiences they’ve had during Georgia Tech’s HCI program. Additionally, they gave their advice for making the most of your time in the program. The rest of the article dives into their responses from the survey.

Top reasons for choosing Georgia Tech:

The different types of learning opportunities, including classes, industry involvement/internships, and working alongside faculty, are a top reason for attending this program, as they provide both practical and theoretical knowledge in human-computer interaction.

What Students Wanted to Learn

Although incoming students enter the program with unique backgrounds and skills, the top learning goals remain divided between Design Methods/styles and Research types. However, learning new technologies and subfields or applications of HCI were two other hot areas of interest to explore within the program.

Favorite Classes

76% of respondents said they had a favorite class in the HCI Program. Favorite classes fell under five categories: Industry experience, Design skills, Technology, Applications of HCI, and Classes outside of HCI. Below is a table showing the categories and relevant classes mentioned by students and alumni. Students and alumni shared a memorable experience about the class for each class, why it was their favorite, and who should take it.

1. Psych 6023 — Psychology Research Methods for HCI

Why was this class your favorite?

Learning with doing. The class was structured such that what we learnt in the class was immediately applicable in the project. It promoted deep understanding of concepts. “

hands-on activities, group activities, engaging discussions”

What was a memorable experience?

“Having the opportunity to present our research and designs to UX experts at NCR and use their very fancy usability lab for conducting testing”

Who should take it?

“Everyone!” (Everyone does take this class, as it is a core MS-HCI class)

2. PUBP 6760 — Negotiation and Conflict Management

Why was this class your favorite?

“It teaches a very relevant skill that…feels very nebulous and hand wavy. But in the class, we go over specific tactics and strategies that make negotiation feel more accessible and less stressful.”

Who should take it?

“Everyone! It’s such a valuable skill, because negotiation shows up in a lot of places in our life and we don’t even realize it all the time. Working with stakeholders and advocating for the user is very much a negotiation, especially when you have to defend design choices.”

1. ID 8802 — Visualizing Communication for Interaction

Why was this class your favorite?

“The in class activities were really fun and relevant. The class was always very engaging which helped since it was a morning class”

What made it memorable?

“Sketching to process ideas and concepts helped me plan and problem solve. I actually used one of the techniques in an interview which was cool”

Who should take it?

“Anyone who is insecure in their sketching ability, but knows the value of visuals”

2. LMC 6311 — Visual Culture and Design (VCD)

What made it memorable?

“Sharing our art in [a design] critique format”

Why was this class your favorite?

“Realizing I can make digital art! I feel confidence in my skills”

Who should take it?

“Anyone interested in learning visual design basics”

3. CS 8803 — Physical Prototyping

What made it memorable?

“Spending time in the shop creating”

What made this class your favorite?

It was great to think creatively and push the bounds of my skill set”

Who should take it?

“Anyone interesting in pushing the bounds of HCI design into the physical world”

1. CS 7450 — Information Visualization

What made it memorable?

“Prof. Stasko had the ability to make every lecture so inspiring and informative…very good orator as well.”

What made it your favorite?

“[Prof. Stasko] had a very clear plan for every lecture. There was a clear set of takeaways from every class. Very little was left to chance”

Who should take it?

‘If you want a class that is out of your comfort zone, and will require you to dabble in code, this one is a must take. Really useful for UXD and Data Vis positions.”

2. CS 6730 — Data Visualization Principles

What made it memorable?

“Every time our professor gives us some interesting data vis. And for the core course, I appreciate the chance to collaborate with industry partners.”

What made it your favorite?

“Super engaging!! And very practical!”

“Introduced me to a new way of thinking”

Who should take it?

Everyone who wants to expand their skillsets or learn how to play with data”

“ Anyone with a non-programming background looking to learn more info viz”

3. CS 7633 — Human-Robot Interaction

What made it memorable?

“I got to take the work I used in that class. Submitted it for a publication and then travel to India for its conference!”

What made it your favorite?

“I was able to meet people from other majors and PhD programs, and then the professor believed in our work and pushed us into better researchers for it.”

Who should take it?

“People who are interested in robots even in the smallest form; people who enjoy research papers and are interested in maybe doing a publication”

4. CS 7470 — Ubiquitous Computing

What made it memorable?

“Being able to build a project for NASA and apply the principles learned from the course. Thad Starner is like a rockstar and having the ability to learn from him and reframe my perspective on what technology can do and be was amazing.”

What made it your favorite?

“Because the end result was a tangible project that I am very proud of completing. In addition to reaching new personal heights, it was amazing to see the other outstanding results that other groups created.”

Who should take it?

“Anyone who is interested in building technology and loves to experience both Design and Engineering.”

1. CS 6470 Design of Online Communities

What made it memorable?

“Prof. Bruckman had the ability to make every lecture so inspiring. Good orator.”

What made it your favorite?

“My team project”

“Interesting readings”

Who should take it?

“Anyone who wants to learn more about online communities and doing research with them”

“Honestly, everyone should take this class because the ethical considerations of the design of social media and networks is relevant to everyone. Particularly, if you want to pursue UX Research, you should take this class.”

2. CS 8803-HI — Personal Health Informatics

What made it your favorite?

“I’m applying what I learn in this course almost 1:1 to my work at my job, specifically patient engagement and compliance models.”

3. CS 6510 — Computing for Good

What made it memorable?

“[Having] several meetings with an exec from a nonprofit to discuss building an app”

“We got to design and build a prototype for a NGO to help them with their mission”

What made it your favorite?

“Actually building an app for a nonprofit”

“We were learning about HCI in the context of helping others”

4. INTA/CS 6745— Technology and Poverty

What made it your favorite?

“Loved the readings from this class, they were super insightful into the field of HCI4D (HCI for Development) and really made me think critically about HCI from a global perspective”

Who should take it?

“Everyone! But more specifically, anyone interested in learning how technology (and non-technological approaches) can be best used a potential tool for change”

1. MUSI 6001 — Music Perception and Cognition

What made it memorable?

“We had an assignment where we interviewed a family member about an impactful piece of music and their memories associated with that music, and it was such a an assignment that really made me feel closer to my family and appreciate music in general”

What made it your favorite?

“I love music and I love psychology, and I felt like every reading and assignment was really interesting and had me deeply exploring the subject/reading research papers. I feel like i’ve already accumulated a lot of knowledge from the class and can see myself using it / remembering it after”

Who should take it?

“Everyone who has some interest in music and psychology (however, there is a lot of music theory concepts so if you have a musical background it would be more suitable)”

2. ID 8803 — Designing for Curiosity

What made it your favorite?

“I loved working with the Children’s Museum of Atlanta to design an exhibit for children. It was so fun and hands on!”

3. LMC 6340 — Reality Experience Design

What made it memorable?

“We cross collaborated with architecture students and attended their studio instead of our class about halfway through the course. They built a physical pavilion and we got to create an AR experience for it.”

4. PSYC 6011 — Cognitive Psychology

What made it memorable?

“Beginning to understand how human perception works (mind-bending, man)”

What made it your favorite?

“lecture/reading material, plus perspectives of fellow students”

5. AE 6721— Evaluation of Human-Integrated Systems

What made it memorable?

“Developing an experimental design of my own and getting to run that experiment.”

What made it your favorite?

“The skills I was [able] to learn and the strategy of research”

Who should take it?

“Anyone interested in research”

On-Campus Learning Experiences

Fifteen students and alumni shared on-campus opportunities they participated in outside of classes that they found memorable.

Working with Professors / Labs

Students work as a GRA (Graduate Research Assistant) in faculty labs, conducting experiments, designing and developing user interfaces as part of ongoing research projects, and even submitting papers to top HCI conferences such as CHI or CSCW. Additionally, students take up independent studies with professors for course credit, allowing them to deeply explore an existing research topic or start a new project focus on whatever area they want. Some examples of research projects:

“I co-authored research and a subsequent paper on effective strategies for [health care workers] in biocontainment units, which ended up influencing Chinese hospital construction at the start of the pandemic (really was impeccable timing)’

“I [did] research on the 2020 GA election. Very relevant’

What made it memorable?

“The ability to do research alongside a professor has helped me understand the world of academia a bit more and understand the process of how research and writing an academic paper works. It was another outlet to combine my interests and work on unsolved problems, but the learnings were really different from a traditional class.”

“ I learned a lot about experiment design from my GRA work. Lots of practically useful information on how to make sure you’re getting the best data possible from your experiment.”

Similarly, students may also work in cross-discipline centers or labs that span across multiple faculty and departments. These centers allow students to collaborate on diverse projects and even utilize lab resources such as maker-spaces.

I have been woking in C21U, which is a lab that focuses on advancing educational technologies and working here gives me a greater sense of responsibility as I am able to work on projects that are high stakes and my lab provides me enough resources to carry out research”

“Worked in the DILAC where I could mess around with physical computing prototyping”

Teaching Assistantships

Another on-campus job for MS-HCI students is a GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistantship). GTAs help assist professors with teaching by grading assignments, leading discussion sections or lectures, and holding office hours for students.

Teaching Assistantships have been really memorable. I’ve strengthened my Data Vis. skills way more as a TA then as a student for the same class. I think explaining a concept to a student or a group of students requires you to be honest to yourself and really inculcate the concepts well.”

Talks and Workshops

Students attend talks, seminars, and workshops that allow them to hear from industry experts, hear about research from faculty and visiting professors, and network with other students and professionals beyond HCI to understand the current scene. When visiting campus, prospective students can also partake in some of these talks (for example, sitting in on a GVU Brown Bag talk). They can get a sense of the energizing HCI community within Georgia Tech and Atlanta.

“Thad Starner and a professor from Miami presented the wearable Starner made so divers could communicate with dolphins. Wow. Where are you gonna hear stuff like that! Also the GVU open house every semester.”

“Aaron Walters did a presentation during my tour of the HCI program and with that session, I was immediately hooked and knew I needed to attend Georgia Tech. That alone helped me to make my decision.”

“Object-Oriented User Experience (OOUX) principles workshop. As a former developer, OOUX spoke my language and helped me to improve how I could pair old learnings with the new. That workshop has been instrumental in my career and I’ve used the OOUX method at least once at every job I’ve had since graduation.

Internships

Students typically partake in a UX-related internship between their first and second year, which provides them a different environment to expand their knowledge of HCI while working on projects with industry partners and gaining working experience. Our students and alumni share how this environment is different from learning in a classroom setting:

Internships require more trade-offs and considerations in your work

“Once entering the workforce as a UX Designer, I had to learn about trade-offs and where I was limited on time. In class, there’s a set process that will take 12 weeks.’

“Definitely learning more about industry based timelines and priorities. They are faster and more concise than the world of academics.”

“Have to be more resourceful”

“The data I work with at my job is always more messy because I wasn’t the one collecting it.”

Internships have more practical, impactful, unsolved (sometimes ambiguous) problems

“I was able to see the impact of my work on the live app and learned [from] so many different professionals”

“More constraints, real problems, ambiguity…’

“I am working with embedded systems (non-responsive mobile UI) that isn’t really taught in school”

“More practical, we need a feature or some analysis work done so [we] get it done quickly.”

Internships feature cross-functional collaborations and opportunities to learn skills outside UX

You collaborate in real time with developers and a PM to design a real project. It’s very fast paced and really fun!”

“You learn non-UX skills that are crucial for a career in UX, such as managing multiple stakeholders.”

“Considering real world stakeholders is always a differentiator from self-driven school projects.”

“[What I learned] was less about UX, but more about how the company works, what people do, how that impacts your role”

Internships require more learning by Doing

What we learn in class are tools and in real world we need to figure which ones to use for ourselves.”

“Less room for error”

Internships can involve needing to proving UX’s value

I’m currently still working part time with the company, but the UX team is very small for it being such a big company. So the need for advocacy and education about proper UX practices and the importance of UX has been a significant portion of my work.”

“At work, often things are not defined and the value of design isn’t inherent. So, it’s a bit of an uphill battle at times to evangelize UX while also doing the work of UX.”

Advice for Prospective and Incoming Students

Students and alumni shared two main strategies for picking classes. Some came in with a solid focus on what they wanted to learn in the program and specifically sought out classes that met their learning goals.

Have a goal in mind on what skills and topics you want to learn and base your classes off those goals.”

“Take classes that will help you improve in the areas that you are interested in. There are many interesting classes, but once you find your path try to focus your classes there.”

Start backwards: have plan of what you want to learn and then choose the right classes”

However, because many classes are offered in the HCI program and across Georgia Tech, others shared that exploring topics they’ve previously never encountered and staying open to unexpected opportunities was more valuable for them.

Take those classes that are far-off but something you are interested in. You will have the rest of your career to do boring work that’s very limited and restricted — use your time in the program to broaden your skillsets and abilities. For example, I took a Musical Environments class where I learned a lot about architecture and music; I also took a Wearables course that taught me so much about fabrics and textiles. I don’t build musical environments or wearable products today, but those classes were greatly influential and helped me to rethink how technology can interact with the many facets of life.”

“I recommend taking courses about which you know nothing. I took Cognitive Psych because I didn’t have the background. If you don’t know how to code, take a class (or something) that teaches you to code.”

“Be open minded to taking classes in an area you’ve never explored before, sometimes the learning opportunities find you and can be unexpected but still really rewarding”

Finally, students and alumni found that taking advantage of the collaborations and interdisciplinary course opportunities was a rewarding experience.

“Explore as many subjects as you can outside of HCI! My favorite class is crosslisted under Public Policy and City Planning, so it’s not even in the HCI curriculum.”

“Group based classes are way more fun and insightful — you get to interact with others and see more perspectives. Expose yourself!”

Thank you for reading this article!

If you have any questions about Georgia Tech’s MS-HCI program, please feel free to reach out. Every student’s experience in this program is unique, but as this article shows, students and alumni found no shortage of experiences and opportunities they found memorable and exciting.

On a final note,

“You’re at the right place. The culture of the MS-HCI cohort is the most nurturing I’ve ever been in :)”

Acknowledgments

Special shout-out to Ngoc Tran and Sonam Singh for their feedback on the survey, Haley Dabbs for the wonderful visuals that accompanied this article, and Tushar Gupta to give me this writing opportunity. Thank you to everyone who also read this article and suggested edits :)

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Writings from the HCI Master's students at Georgia Tech

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