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Developing skills in Human Computer Interaction

At the beginning of 2013 I was looking for a way to develop my skills and learn more in the area on User Experience. Finding a solution that would fit in with work and wasn’t too pricey seemed impossible until I came across an online course in Human Computer Interaction run by Stanford University. The 9 week course is provided through Coursera, an education company who partners with the top universities to enable millions of students to learn online, for free!

The course

The HCI course comprised of video lectures, quizzes and assignments and could be taken at different levels. People from 135 different countries took part, 19,759 watched the videos, 10,208 submitted quizzes and 3,303 took part in assignments.

The course materials gave a great insight into the subject and covered things like rapid prototyping, evaluating interface alternatives and how these practices inform the design of technology. Specific topics included Needfinding, mock-ups, participant observation, designing experiments, visual design and heuristic evaluation. I have learnt a wealth of useful techniques and best practices giving me a great introduction to user experience.

Peer assessment

At first this method of marking assignments seemed like a lengthy process. However it was surprising how much I learnt by looking at other peoples work and considering what they have done well or could improve. Stanford is one of the first to pioneer this technique and I think more courses should take advantage of the idea. Scott Klemmer reflects on this with colleges in a recent article ‘Teaching online yields lessons about learning, Stanford scholars say’.

My project

Over the 9 week period 6 assignments make up a project. I chose ‘Change’ from an option of 3 design briefs. The challenge was to ‘Use the power of new technology to create an application or service that facilitates personal or social behaviour change.’  We started by evaluating existing ways people do things. I investigated the way people use the app My Fitness Pal by observing 3 participants. I found that although some people were managing to achieve their goals, others were not. The app is very focused on loosing weight by tracking your food and exercise and does not enable you to set clear goals and keep track of your progress.

After story boarding some ideas I created two interactive rapid prototypes using Balsamiq. This allowed me to quickly communicate how my app would work. With the help of the peer assessment, the two options were compared and Heuristic Evaluation was used to identify any initial issues with the way the prototype worked.

The final assignment was to develop a full prototype to run some user observations on. This was the most insightful part of the process, displaying how important user testing is and how much you can learn from involving users in the design process; for both idea generation and problem solving.

The future of online learning

This way of learning is becoming extremely popular. I certainly found it a very positive experience that I would recommend to anyone looking to learn new skills or try something new and challenging. The HCI course had the right balance, a great learning experience that can be completed whilst working with different levels of involvement depending on the time you can spare.

New courses are being announced frequently on Coursea and many other universities are offering experimental online versions of their on campus courses. MIT ran a Circuits and Electronics course in 2012 and 155,000 people registered. They have recently released some interesting information on what they learned from running the course ‘Data from edX’s first course offer preliminary insights into online learning’.

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