Mia Itri- When imagining the fields of Human-Computer Interaction and Design, what is the first thing that comes to mind? The nature of HCI is that ideas are incorporated from many related fields, but just how vast are these backgrounds?

At UC Irvine, one of the most discussed ideas is that study and work should be interdisciplinary. This holds true for the MHCID program as well; interdisciplinary is its most significantly defining characteristic. In this program, each student has the opportunity to contribute, grow, learn and succeed, not in spite of diverse backgrounds, but because of them.

Take for example, four students in the MHCID program living in four different states, from four different backgrounds, who just met for the first time at an on-campus intensive. Here are some of their thoughts on beginning this program.

Day one. Hardly enough books.

Mia, from English and Education:

My background of English Education, and the field of Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience Design are not two things that seemed to go hand-in-hand at first glance. More often than not, in my education experiences, especially English education in my home state, times that pre-date everyday computing are idealized, instead emphasizing the importance of maintaining analog education in an increasingly digitized world. Most faculty meetings consisted of a mix of other teachers complaining about being told to use technology in the classroom, and hostile discussion of “how many years until we all lose our jobs and computers take over?” To me, the fields seemed incredibly at odds with each other. Entering the MHCID program from my professional Education background, where anything more than minimal use of technology was a taboo, was entering uncharted territory. But its territory that I longed to explore, secretly, of course, as I sat in those faculty meetings.

As an English education graduate student, I was conducting A LOT of research. I designed studies, wrote and gave surveys, performed interviews and observations, and held focus groups, all in an effort to pursue answers to questions of best practices and to help to understand how my students learned in and out of the classroom. As a digital native myself, I wanted to understand how it impacted learning when it comes to literacy, creative writing and social advocacy through writing. As an insider to the world of digital natives, I wanted to explore whether my experiences online, especially blogging, that shaped my literacy journey were unique or was it a shared experience with other digital natives? I wanted to see how instant, at-your-fingertips access to every style of writing imaginable impacted my students as they became writers themselves.

Now, that I have started my journey as an MHCID student at UCI, I have the opportunity to take my experiences from my past in Education, and apply them to HCI. In the midst of a barrage of unfamiliar terminology or learning the differences between sketches, wireframes and paper prototypes, hearing things like “ethnography” or “Likert scale” or “qualitative data” feels a lot like coming home after a long adventure. The true beauty though, of an interdisciplinary program is that along with everything new and unfamiliar I come across, there are still familiar elements that I can use as a sturdy foundation to build all the new knowledge I gain. Even better still, is the opportunity to contribute to and learn from the diverse backgrounds of my fellow students.

Relishing that sweet, fleeting feeling of not having to explain what MHCID is to someone

Sarah, from Design:

In the field of design, our most creative, enduring and critical project is that of our career itself. When I switched majors in my undergraduate studies from health policy to graphic design, my mother’s friends recoiled at the news. Would my mother (gasp) allow it? While it hadn’t occurred to either of us that I would ask her permission, my mother supported my choice. Still, years into my career, it has been difficult to explain to my parents what exactly it is I do, and what the future holds for me.

Taking my career as a Design project, coming to MHCID at UCI is phase II. Most of our cohort is coming from an already fruitful career, and brings years of experience that will enrich whatever aspect of the field we choose to pursue. This is the story of American careers in the 21st century. It has few predefined tracks to success, and each career will be built with many different chapters. To examine ourselves through this lens — why are we choosing this next phase of the design process? To iterate on any design is to have learned from the previous round, documented its success and failures and crafted a finely tuned process to elevate performance. It is also to assume the cost of time and money invested, and risk failure.

Each of us sees the potential as worth the risk. But, each of us is under the constraint of needing to stay grounded in our working and personal lives. This program’s design suits our unique needs — to grow, but also to maintain. It has affordances for each of us to take part without leaving the lives we have built, starting with a one week intensive that would fit into even the least generous vacation allowance. We are collaborating remotely, building a more diverse cohort as well as building skills suited for this new work landscape. In this year, we are working at a sprint. The world is shifting rapidly, we are making ourselves ready for the unexpected and teaching ourselves to develop the grit and fortitude to prioritize and focus in a chaotic, time-crunched space.

Finally, we are designing our return to learning to be open to newness. We are designing a new opportunity, without limiting the possibilities. For my parents, who have been most satisfied when I can pass along a poster or mug showcasing my designs, I doubt my future work is something that will fit neatly on the wall or in a cupboard, other than their seeing me craft my career itself. Perhaps I will frame my degree for their wall instead.

The most gory slide of the week, found in Dr. Denenberg’s lecture discussing memory and visual processing

Maria, from Marketing & Media (@mariahaynie)

Part of my decision to go to UCI, a school I’ve never visited that is over 2,000 miles away, was because of the face-to-face element the MHCID program offered.

I’m extroverted and visual just enough to know that having a real sense of my cohort and professors would go a long way in keeping me motivated and helping me retain knowledge by cementing it in live conversations.

The week before I came to California for the on-campus intensive was far more intense for me than the week there. There were readings to be read. Online student platforms to figure out. I had to remember how to read “acadamese,” figure out how to take notes again, and watch Brene Brown clips about overcoming imposter syndrome.

Later, when I found myself in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences on UC-Irvine’s beautiful campus (seriously, though, all of Irvine is lovely), I was pleasantly surprised by the variety in my cohort. I felt comfortable sharing my background, which travels through a media arts bachelor’s degree; newsrooms of TV stations and newspapers; years as a freelance writer/designer/public affairs consultant; a stint in community health; and my current work in marketing. Along the way, I also got married and had three kids, which was a bit unusual in this cohort.

I can connect the dots between all of these and trace how my skills in communications, storytelling, research, and design have grown in each. However, I was concerned whether or not all of that would intersect gracefully within the domains of the MHCID program. I am pleased to say that I underestimated how unabashedly interdisciplinary this field and diverse cohort are.

In many ways, my experiences in journalism and nonfiction filmmaking corresponded directly to topics we covered during the intensive, like interviewing and storyboarding.

Even bases of knowledge less directly applicable had their moment to shine. For example, my time in community health was focused on the prevention of blindness. It oddly overlapped a lecture by Dr. Denenberg on visual processing and gestalt psychology. When a slide depicting a crosscut of the eye and brain appeared, it was immensely gratifying to apply my unusually large amount of ophthalmic knowledge! Usually I only get to pull it out like a parlor trick to impress strangers.

I’m excited to see, both by the light refracted by the five layers of my cornea and from the experiences of the other amazing people in this program, what other perspectives will be brought to this year’s learning and lectures.

A pause from musical chairs to do a sketch critique

Anuja, from Psychology & HR (@anuja.upadhye):

I had never thought of pursuing a career in technology until I created my first interface in my role as an HR Generalist. The interface was simple and made administrative work faster and error-free. This was my first experience with design thinking, and how it could elegantly solve problems. I had accidentally created a better user experience! This was when my pursuit to mastering HCID began.

I was elated when I received an admission letter from UC Irvine and counted down my days from that moment to the intensive week. The night before our class started, some of our cohort decided to meet up to get to know each other. The short time I was there that night, I realized I was in the right place.

During the first week at the MHCID intensive at UC Irvine, I truly understood what the word “interdisciplinary” means. Our cohort consists of students from various backgrounds which makes this program enriching. Everyone has different perspectives and ideas which expand your view of the world. I experienced this first hand during our daily sketching critiques wherein we were assigned a theme each day to sketch out our ideas. The ideas and the feedback we came up with were diverse and added great value to the exercise.

I guess that is the beauty of HCI, that it takes all experiences into account. With my background in Psychology, I was able to relate to theories and terminologies such as Gestalt psychology, cognitive walkthrough, triangulation and perception. While I had studied all of this many, many years back, this overview helped me review the strengths of my academic background from a different lens.

The intensive week helped me introspect my interests that had been buried by the daily grind of my 40-hours-per-week job. A lecture on User Research and Evaluation by Dr. Hayes and Professor DiCosola revived my curiosity for research.

The intensive week was not just about course curriculum, lecture and theories; it was also about making connections. It was also about finding your goals, discovering yourself and making friendships that will last. My first week as a student of HCID gave me a preview of what my future could look like and this made me even more excited to pursue this path.

Reppin’. What’s college without a free shirt?

Interdisciplinary. While the technical definition may be different, the definition for what it means for all of us together, as students in the MCHID program, is the opportunity for each of us to use our backgrounds, our skills, our interests and our aspirations; to learn and grow together, and draw on our diversity and the diversity woven into the design of this program, to grow as individuals. We are designers, educators, writers, programmers, editors, marketers, UX professionals, psychology scholars, journalists, and so much more, but most of all, we are future MCHID graduates, together. — Mia Itri

Photo credit Matt Miller (mostly).