From a Bell Telephone Magazine article on educational networks, 1967. Flickr Commons/The Internet Archive

Course Introduction: Interaction & Service Design Concepts

Principles, Perspectives, and Practices

Seminar 1 (51–701), Fall 2016
Carnegie Mellon School of Design

Prof. Molly Wright Steenson, PhD
TA: Min Kim

What is the world for which you’re designing? What is interaction, what is design, where did these notions come from, and where are they going?

Our seminar explores principles, perspectives, and practices that undergird interaction and service design and beyond. We will explore the underlying principles of design, examine themes from a variety of perspectives, and consider the effects of both on different practices. Through this grounding, you will return to questions of what kind of designer you are and wish to be, what you believe in, and how that will extend to your research and practice.

Interaction design wasn’t invented from scratch as a singular, monolithic practice. It was born out of the intersection of a number of disciplines from within design and human-computer interaction, and also from art, media, architecture, politics, and philosophy, and beyond. As such, you will notice that our readings accordingly extend beyond traditional design and HCI literature. Through my suggestions and yours, we will also turn to design questions in computing, artificial intelligence, digital culture, film, tv, fiction, gaming, music, art and beyond as we together frame our understandings. We will be talking about difficult issues and wicked problems in the world, and will discuss race, gender, postcolonialization/decoloniality, labor, and the environment, among many other things.

Writing is an important design tool. You will be writing continually throughout the class as you grapple with questions in the readings, answering “your mission” prompts weekly on Medium throughout the semester, writing short papers, and at the end of the semester, a longer, critical paper or literature review that supports your research interests. Always, you will put a stake in the ground on what matters to you in design, where you fit in, and how you want to approach it in your research and practice.

You’ll be successful in this class if you try hard, take risks, and question assumptions. This is your time to turn things upside down and sideways, shake them up, and see what comes out.

This syllabus page is a living document. (You can also see what we did last year in this class.) I will be updating it continually, outlining your missions and dropping in images, links and videos. It is an opportunity to build a body of work together on our seminar’s own interpretation of principles perspectives and practices.

In this class, you will:

  • Deepen and broaden your understanding of the principles, perspectives & practices that make up design
  • Understand different ways to frame problems
  • Attune your sensitivity to values in design
  • Become confident and fluent in discussing design and issues in multiple contexts
  • Develop a critical stance about contemporary technology
  • Read and write analytically and creatively

And a note to remind you to take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. All of us benefit from support during times of struggle. You are not alone. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of the college experience is learning how to ask for help. Asking for support sooner rather than later is often helpful.

If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help: call 412–268–2922 and visit their website at Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help.

What we’ll be doing

Your grade consists of the following:

  • Reflective essays (“your mission”) on Medium (8 over course of semester, 350–500 words): 25%
  • Discussion leadership with small group: 10%
  • Short paper (1250 words/5 pages): 15%
  • Long paper (3000 words/12 pages): 30%
  • Final paper presentation: 5%
  • Participation: 15%

Your mission… (reflective essays): 25%

Complete the readings in time for each class, and respond to each prompt with a 350–500-word (maximum equivalent of two single-spaced pages) response that you will publish on Medium. Your reflections on the prompt will take the readings into consideration, and then apply them in some way to broader issues. You may incorporate images, video, links, your own drawings or photos, and so on. Think of it as a sketchbook in words, a way of bookmarking your interests and ideas in writing. You can and should be creative in your Medium posts. Incorporate images and video into them. Have fun with them. Complete your response no later than 7 pm Sunday night before class unless specified otherwise. No late responses accepted. Please see the Reading & Writing Resources page for more information on writing on Medium.

Participation: 15%

This seminar lives and dies on your presence and participation. Show up, be prepared, engage your colleagues’ perspectives with respect, and make this class what you want it to be. Please speak up in class, participate in small groups, read and comment on your colleagues’ Medium posts, take part in peer review, and be present. Please note that there are no unexcused absences in this class. If you need to miss class, let me know in advance of class by email if at all possible. If you cannot, let me know as soon as possible.

Leading discussion & conversation: 10%

Many Wednesday class sessions will be led by teams of ~3 discussion leaders. You will provide a critical backdrop for week’s meeting, coming up with provocative questions for our discussion, and adding your own examples, applications, and artifacts to the conversation, and publishing them on a Medium post. Discussion leaders will meet with Molly in advance of class. As you put together your approach for the session, start with an end in mind. Where would you like to end up and what kind of questions will get you there? Good questions tend to bring in the how and the why, and are more effective than making a statement and asking the class what you think. You might consider activities or debates you might like to do. You may want to turn a discussion on its head, or play devil’s advocate, or choose a contrary position. At the end of the class, you’ll conclude and summarize the discussion to see us out.

Short paper: 15%

You’ve already written about a wicked problem in your Medium post and then delved into a wicked problem in your small groups. In both of those assignments, you described the systems, maps, and stakeholders that operate within these wicked problems.

For your short paper, you will do the opposite. You will zoom in. You will look at one object within the wicked problem (either the one you wrote about or the one your team chose to discuss) in great detail, doing a “close reading” of the object. Look closely. Observe. What do you notice about your object? What do you see? What does it look like, feel like, smell like? How big is it? What does it do? What questions does it raise? As the New York Times writes, this kind of close reading requires you to “proceed more slowly and methodically, noticing details, making connections and asking questions.” How does the object highlight dynamics of your wicked problem, and how does it not? It’s similar to doing a close reading of a stanza of a poem or a sentence in a novel, or of a painting or sculpture in an art history class, if you’ve ever been given that assignment.

On a more pop cultural level, this is what Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg refer to as “object lessons.” They’ve done a (more extensive than I want you to do) series of essays and books that look closely at specific objects. There’s Paul Dourish on why there are so many flash drives everywhere, or Christopher Schaberg on the popularity of the fishing shirt.

Your paper should be no longer than 1250 words and no shorter than 1100 words. You must cite your sources, you must not paraphrase without citing or use another writer’s words. Note that Wikipedia is not considered an appropriate academic source. I’ve created a Medium page about reading and writing for this class. Please watch the video about plagiarism (it’s a link, not embedded): it does a very simple and good job of explaining what plagiarism is and is not.

Your first draft is due Friday 9/23 by 7 pm. We will then review papers in small groups, and you will provide feedback to your classmates. You will then revise the paper. It is due Friday 10/7 by 7 pm.

Final paper: 30%

This paper is a critical and rigorous engagement with an interaction or service design issue of your own choosing. MDes students, you may wish to make this your first foray into exploring your thesis topic, and your paper can inform the thesis proposal that you write in 2017. You will complete a proposal for your seminar paper, meet with Molly to discuss, and revise your proposal. Then, you’ll write a first draft of the paper, review 2–3 of your colleagues’ papers and provide feedback, receive feedback from Molly, and then complete a final draft of your paper.

For both the short and long paper, there is no separate scoring of proposal, draft, peer review and final paper, but you must complete all of these tasks to qualify for the full point count. You do not need to make your proposal or your paper public on Medium unless you choose.

Paper presentation: 5%

You will each give a very brief final paper presentation in Ignite style, a 5-minute presentation where the slides advance every 20 seconds. This takes practice! It’s fun, fast-paced — and over quickly. (Here’s an example — your professor is Internet famous for an Ignite talk she gave in 2009 on pneumatic tubes and postal services.)

Important dates:

  • Friday, 9/25, 7 pm: Short paper first draft due
  • Friday, 10/7, 7 pm: Short paper final due
  • Monday, 10/17: No class meeting. Instead, you will meet with Molly about thesis topic (bring your draft paper proposal, 250 words and 5 potential sources)
  • Friday, 11/11, 7 pm: First draft of long paper due. Share with 2–3 colleagues for peer review (peer reviews will be assigned to you)
  • Monday, 11/21: Peer review in class
  • Week of 12/5: Ignite presentations (5 minutes) for final papers
  • Monday, 12/12, 9 am: Final paper due

Academic integrity

The point of this class is to develop and situate your own ideas in a broader discourse — and in order to do that properly, you need to cite your work. No form of academic dishonesty will be tolerated. When you use words, images, videos — even ideas and thoughts that are not yours and that you do not credit or properly cite, you are guilty of plagiarism. Do not cut and paste from other sources, even into your own notes, without keeping some system that tells you exactly where your work came from. For your weekly posts, you must cite, and you must not use words without attribution. This includes paraphrasing. Use Chicago style to cite your work in your papers. We will discuss research tools that can make this easier for you. CMU’s policies are available here for your review.

Tools for success for grad school reading, writing and research

I’ve published a post on strategies for reading, writing, research, Medium, images, and so on — and will continue to post to it throughout the semester. Please be sure to visit it for more information.