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

Syllabus: 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

Readings, course schedule, missions & assignments

From the 1982 census for agriculture, Flickr/Creative Commons

Students enrolled in the class may access readings on Box:

And similarly, you will find lecture slides here:

Here are tools and strategies for reading, writing, and research:

This seminar is more of a firehose and less of a concentrated stream. And yet, it is by no means comprehensive. You’ll find approaches and resources on this Medium post that I urge you to read.

Please note that this syllabus can and very likely will change as the semester progresses, and we may choose to focus more heavily on some readings versus others. Watch this space for updates, as well as through our other channels of communication.

From an article titled “The Growing Importance of Human Ecology” in the Bell Telephone Magazine, November/December 1967. Flickr/The Internet Archive.

Our Plan, Week by Week

Be sure to visit this part of the page often: it will change at least weekly.

Part One: Introductions and Origin Stories

There’s not a single origin story of interaction design. In our first two weeks, we’ll examine several origin stories for interaction design and where they came from. Note the individuals and institutions that formulated this nascent field. What do you make of them? Let’s augment this list with your own suggestions.

Week 1, Introductions

M, 8/29: We will go over the course structure and activities, meet your fellow students (if you haven’t already), and get to know your professor.

Your mission: First, introduce yourself. Start a Medium profile (if you don’t wish to tie it to your personal social media, you may start a new account and use that). Use images, video, sound, whatever you would like. Then define for yourself, based on your own experience and your own values the following: what is interaction, what is design, and where do you stand? Throughout this first term, you will return to your statement. Does it change, and how? Or do you feel more firmly about it than ever? (You may put both your introduction and your definition of interaction design in the same post.)

W, 9/2: Perspectives on (interaction) design

We will start with some different perspectives on interaction design. The Moggridge video below tells the story of interaction design’s emergence from and relationship to industrial design. The Saffer piece comes from his designers’ experience in practice (he is a CMU Design alum), and the Kolko piece (he is a CMU HCI alum) is about design thinking and was published in the September 2015 Harvard Business Review. The Ruiz piece is an introduction to service design.

Watch Bill Moggridge’s apocryphal story about the birth of interaction design, from the documentary Objectified. For as beautiful and thoughtful as the Grid’s exterior was, it was the interaction with its software that produced its soul. This is one origin story of interaction design.


Week 2, Origin Stories

M, 9/5: No class, Labor Day

W, 9/7: Origin stories: Last week, we talked about contemporary framings. This week, we will look at three technological perspectives that undergird interaction design. In the weeks to come, we will delve more deeply into some of the things that Jonathan Grudin raises. Tara McPherson’s piece offers a critical lens of race politics that seems to be otherwise absent in histories of technology.

Your mission:
Last week, we talked about different ways that interaction design is framed. You offered your own definitions of interaction design. This week, we are looking at different histories of interaction design. From your perspective, what else needs to be included in a history of interaction design from your perspective? You are from many different backgrounds — industrial design, architecture, graphic design, human-computer interaction, to name a few — and you’re from all over the world. What else should be included in a history of interaction design that includes your training, where you’re from, your personal perspective? Due no later than Tuesday 9/6 at 7 pm. Please include at least one image and/or video. Creativity is always welcome.


  • Mitch Kapor, “Software Design Manifesto,” in Bringing Design to Software, ed. Terry Winograd, (New York: ACM Press, 1996). [Online]
  • Tara McPherson, “Operating Systems at Mid-Century,” Race after the Internet, eds. Lisa Nakamura & Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012): 21–37. [Box]
  • Jonathan Grudin, “The Computer Reaches Out: The Historical Continuity of Interface Design,” in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI ’90 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 1990). [Box]

Part Two: Problems with Problems

We often talk about problem-solving in design. Where does this idea come from, and where does it lead? How we decide what is and is not a problem? How do find set about finding and framing them?

It begs the question of whether design is a problem to be solved at all. We’ve tended to situate design in this manner (hence the historical readings: so we understand where the idea came from). Does that mean that trying to find a problem to solve is the right thing to do? Could we think of something like “problem worrying,” a term that MIT architecture professor Stanford Anderson came up with in 1965 to get architects away from thinking in terms of problems and solutions.

Cover of the January/February 1967 Bell Telephone Magazine. Flickr/The Internet Archive. See the whole issue here.

Week 3, Wicked Problems

M, 9/12: Let’s start with this: it’s almost impossible to solve a wicked problem. Wicked problems are complicated and complex, each part impacts another part of the problem, we tend to not have complete knowledge of all aspects of them, they bear a great economic burden, and they affect many, many people.

Hugh Dubberly of Dubberly Design Office wrote a piece called “Why Horst Rittel Matters.” He wrote that Rittel teaches us that:

* Simple problems (problems which are already defined) are easy to solve, because defining a problem inherently defines a solution.
* The definition of a problem is subjective; it comes from a point of view. Thus, when defining problems, all stake-holders, experts, and designers are equally knowledgeable (or unknowledgeable).
* Some problems cannot be solved, because stake-holders cannot agree on the definition. These problems are called wicked, but sometimes they can be tamed.
* Solving simple problems may lead to improvement — but not innovation. For innovation, we need to re-frame wicked problems.
* Because one person cannot possibly remember or keep track of all the variables (of both existing and desired states) in a wicked problem, taming wicked problems requires many people.
* These people have to talk to each other; they have to deliberate; they have to argue.
* To tame a wicked problem, they have to agree on goals and actions for reaching them. This requires knowledge about actions, not just facts.
* Science is concerned with factual knowledge (what-is); design is concerned with instrumental knowledge (how what-is relates to what-ought-to-be), how actions can meet goals.
* The process of argumentation is the key and perhaps the only method of taming wicked problems.
* This process is political.
* Design is political.

Your mission: This week, we’re looking at different approaches to problem solving. Choose your own example of a problem that qualifies as a “wicked problem.” Then using the concepts in this week’s readings, how would you analyze that problem? Who are the stakeholders in the problem? What systems are there? What other questions does your problem raise? This is an opportunity to work your analytical side and finding a good example for discussion in class.


  • Horst Rittel & Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Science 4 (1973): 155–69. [Box]
  • Molly Wright Steenson, "Wicked Liberalism,” Medium, July 9, 2016. [Online]
  • Laura Kurgan, “Million Dollar Blocks,” 187–204. []. Note that many of these pages are maps and images.
  • Optional: Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” Design Issues 8 (2), (1992): 5–21. [Box]

Further reading:

W, 9/14: Discussion & small group work.

Short paper prompt: This week, you’ve 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 Monday 10/3 by 10 am.

Week 4, Framing and representation

M, 9/19: Kees Dorst’s book Frame Innovation investigates how expert designers change the framing of design questions so that they can find different kinds of answers. How does changing the frame shift the focus? “If the problem situation is approached as if it is _______, then [these things happen]_______.”

We’ll also look at reframing and representation in fashion and music. I included the Melissa Harris-Perry piece because she presents a multiple reframing of an editorial decision that Elle magazine made. She also refers to Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which I would argue is one of the most important and potent pieces of media to come out in the last year. Please watch it.

Readings and viewings

Melissa Harris-Perry on the politics of African-American hair

Your mission: This week’s mission is open-ended because we’ve got a few different themes going on—so it’s up to you. A few possibilities:

  • Frame a problem using Dorst’s method. I’ll leave it up to you whether you choose an element of the wicked problem (it would need to be quite specific, as you will see from the readings) or something else that interests you.
  • Frame and reframe an argument around beauty, fashion, femininity, masculinity, gender, race, ethnicity, age, body type (and so on). Melissa Harris-Perry engages in reframing in her piece about the Elle cover. How might you do this?
  • A more general response to Dorst, Harris-Perry, and/or Beyoncé’s Lemonade that makes an argument of some sort.

As always, due Sunday at 7 pm.

W, 9/23: Discussion

In the discussion led by Rossa, Nurie and MacKenzie, we talked about microaggressions. The site is a collection of many things people say, and photographer Kiyun photographed people with signs of microaggressive comments people have made to them.

F, 9/25, 7 pm: Short paper due

Week 5, Social Construction of Technology

M, 9/26: Peer review of papers: No Medium post this week

Writing is a design process in which we map, write, respond, communicate and iterate. While actually writing texts tends to happen alone, reading and writing happens in a community. That’s where you come in.

WIth that in mind, for class on Monday, you will read and respond to two or three of each other’s papers. You should spend about 20–30 minutes at a minimum per paper in preparation and then you will spend about 20 minutes in class in groups discussing each paper. This is meant to be a generous and thoughtful process, one that will improve your papers and give you a chance to learn from each other. It can sometimes feel a little scary, but remember that everyone feels that way when they share their work.

Here’s what we will do:


Share your paper with others in your group. Make sure your name is on it! Print out the paper. Have a conversation in the margins of the paper with the author in your own written comments. Some things to consider:

  • What’s your favorite part of the paper? What are the 2–3 biggest strengths of the paper?
  • What arguments is the author making? What questions do they raise for you? How might they be improved? Is there enough evidence and examples to support it?
  • How clear are the claims that the author is making?Are they specific enough?
  • How does the structure flow? Might it work better if it were rearranged differently?
  • How does it use images (or how should it use images)? What would make it clearer?


  • What are you most certain about with your paper? What do you feel it is contributing?
  • Where do you think you most need feedback? If you could ask your fellow authors one question about your paper, what would it be?

W, 9/28: Discussion and Skype with Dr. Janet Vertesi

Society drives technology, and technology and technological use is informed by society and social context — not the other way around. Janet Vertesi will join us in the latter part of the class.

  • Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109:1 (Winter, 1980): 121–36.
  • Janet Vertesi, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction,”Science, Technology and Human Values 39.2: 264–284.

Week 6, Values in Design

M, 10/3: Short paper due by 10 am

Far too often, the values of design become apparent after the fact, and not before, when we see the impact and outcome of unintended design decisions. We can learn from the social construction of technology and studies of infrastructure in order to determine what and how we want to design, and what values are reflected within the process.

  • Cory Knobel & Geof Bowker, “Values in Design,” Communications of the ACM54: 7 (July 2011): 26–28. This very brief piece introduces the idea of values in design.
  • Phoebe Sengers, Kirsten Boehner, Shay David & Jofish Kaye, “Reflective Design,” Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility (2005): 49–58.
  • Ellen van Oost, “Materialized Gender: How Shavers Configure the Users’ Femininity and Masculinity,” in How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies, eds. Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).

W, 10/5: Discussion

Ming, Eunjung and Manjari led a great discussion on values in design that culminated in the Interaction Design Studio groups examining their projects and considering and deliberating over their studio projects.

And later….

Allison Huang shared this article in the Atlantic on values and technology, “The Binge Breaker.”

Part Three: Critical Approaches to Technology

Week 7, Data Culture

M, 10/10: Big data has been a buzzword for the last several years, and yet it’s hard to define. The fact that its definition is so slippery offers us opportunities to look critically at what designing with and for data means and considering its societal impact. Data is said to reveal things: it can reveal patterns and behaviors that might not be apparent to its users. At the same time, the sheer glut of data can obscure and obfuscate.

Your mission: Referring to at least two of the readings and also at least one of the videos below, discuss the implications of algorithms and data mining on your digital experience. What is the single biggest question that these various pieces leave you with?

Guest speaker: Min Kim


  • Alice Marwick, “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined, New York Review of Books, January 9, 2014 [Box]
  • Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction, excerpts. [Box] Thanks to Min Kim for her selection of this text! It will come in handy over the next three weeks as we talk about AI, too.
  • David Cole, “We Kill People Based on Metadata,” New York Review of Books, May 10, 2014. [Online]

Things to watch:

There are two things for you to watch this week: Generation Like and a TED Talk with Eli Pariser.

First, watch Generation Like on Frontline with Douglas Rushkoff. In particular, focus on the stories of how Facebook triangulates data and brand knowledge, and the work of the company called theAudience. (I am less interested for this mission in fan culture.)

Then, watch the TED Talk with Eli Pariser below.

The content that algorithms might select for you to view or read can have a self-reinforcing tendency. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, gives a quick version of his argument here.

A few links in the wake of class

“The Legal Fiction that Could Kill Duane Buck”—The Atlantic

The Frontline documentary United States of Secrets is outstanding.

W, 10/12: Discussion

Week 8, Human-Computer Symbiosis (AI, old skool)

M, 10/17: No class meeting: instead, you will have meetings with Molly about your paper topics in advance of completing your proposal.

W, 10/19: DIFFERENT TIME: 9–11:20 
Meeting concurrent with MA Architecture “Inquiry into Computation and Design” course taught by Daniel Cardoso Llach.

Artificial intelligence presumes that 1) we model intelligence in hardware or software in some way and 2) it does so in a believable manner. Early work in artificial intelligence assumed that computers would quickly be able to model the human brain and be intelligent — which turned out to be far more difficult than its researchers imagined. We will use this week as a way to look at those issues of modeling and proof of intelligence, then return to this topic later in the class for a contemporary approach.

Your mission: How do you know when something is intelligent? What are your criteria? How does this change the scope of your work as a designer? UW-Madison computer science PhD candidate Alper Sarikaya found himself turning to a famousStar Trek: The Next Generation episode… what are your criteria?

  • J.C.R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1, no. 1 (1960): 4–11. (
  • Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, July 1945. and scan of original — which you should see — on Box.
  • [Optional] Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59, no. 236 (1950): 433–60. (

Week 9, Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

M, 10/24:

Discussion of research tools

  • Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 3rd Ed.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). I highly recommend you purchase this indispensable book and refer to it frequently.

W, 10/26: DIFFERENT TIME: 9–11:20 
Meeting concurrent with MA Architecture “Inquiry into Computation and Design” course taught by Daniel Cardoso Llach.

Now we’ll take AI and machine learning up to the present.

  • Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World, excerpts. [Box]
  • Alan Blackwell, “Interacting with an Inferred World: The Challenge of Machine Learning for Humane Computer Interaction,” Critical Alternatives 2015: The 5th Decennial Aarhus Conference (2015).
  • James Vlahos, “Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child.” New York Times,September 16, 2015.

And a few things that came up in discussion:

Here’s the Tweenbot, which moved around the West Village in New York. It asked people for a little help to get over curbs or unstuck from park benches.

It’s a little like the Hitchhiking Robot, which traveled through several countries before being destroyed by some jerk in a football jersey.

Week 10, Research tips

M, 10/31: Continued discussion of AI and the present

W, 11/2: Molly out. In lieu of class, on Friday 11/4, visit the opening of Climactic: Post Normal Design in advance of discussion next week. If you absolutely cannot attend the exhibition, please let Molly and Min know, and attend it on Tuesday, November 8.

Week 11, Speculative design, critical design, and design fiction

Deepa Butoliya, Critical Jugaad

Critical design is polarizing. We’ll be engaging with the exhibition Climactic: Post Normal Design that opens this week at CMU’s Miller Gallery, curated by Deepa Butoliya, Ahmed Ansari of CMU’s PhD program and Katherine Moline. Please read the following pieces (mostly online) and watch Stuart Candy’s TEDx Talk. Be sure you attend the exhibition on its opening day Friday November 4, or Tuesday November 8.

M, 11/7: Molly out, possible tour of Climactic at the CMU Miller Gallery

W, 11/9: Workshop: uncovering bias in design scenarios with Dan Lockton & Molly Steenson

Week 12, Design for behavior change

M, 11/14: Dan Lockton, guest speaker

W, 11/16: Discussion

Week 13, Peer review

M, 11/21: Peer review session in class. Required.


Week 14, Conclusions: What is interaction design?

M, 11/28: We’ll review where we’ve gone this semester and begin to wrap up the key threads. We return to your definition of interaction design from the beginning of the semester. Where do you stand now? Same? Different?

Your mission: revisit your post about your definition of interaction design.

W, 11/30: Final discussion. Students leading the discussion will wrap up the class for us.

Week 15, Final presentations

M, 12/5: First round of presentations

W, 12/7: Second round of presentations

M, 12/12, 9 AM: Final paper due (note: previously, an incorrect date was listed here.) But you may, of course, hand it in earlier if you wish.