CS 179 Design of Useful and Usable Interactive Systems
MW 3-4:15 PM See canvas for Zoom Link
Harvard, Cambridge, MA
Spring 2021

The course covers skills and techniques necessary to design innovative interactive products that are useful, usable and that address important needs of people other than yourself. You will learn how to uncover needs that your customers cannot even articulate. You will also learn a range of design principles, effective creativity-related practices, and techniques for rapidly creating and evaluating product prototypes. You will also have several opportunities to formally communicate your design ideas to a variety of audiences. You will complete two large team-based design projects.

Who is this course for?

Undergraduates in any concentration, of any graduation year. Given that there are no programming assignments, no programming experience is required.

Spring 2021 Lectures
  • Monday Jan 25: Need Theses and Needfinding (PDF)
  • Wednesday Jan 27: Approach Theses and User Feedback (PDF)
  • Monday Feb 1: Needfinding Methods (PDF)
  • Wednesday Feb 3: Affinity Diagramming (PDF)
  • Monday Feb 8: Storyboarding and Ideation (PDF)
  • Wednesday Feb 10: Creativity Part 2 (PDF)
Past Lecture Topics
  • Design Arguments (PDF)
  • Identifying and addressing riskiest risks (PDF)
  • Heuristic Evaluation (PDF)
  • Needfinding (PDF)
  • Teams & Intro to Affinity Diagramming (PDF)
  • Approach Theses, Storyboarding, and Ideation (PDF)
  • AI/HCI (PDF) and UI Prototyping
  • Ethics
  • How to give a good pitch (PDF)
  • Finding a problem area (PDF)
  • Behavior Change A Conversation with Prof. Elena Agapie (recording)
  • Debugging Design Arguments & Community Support A Conversation with Leesha Maliakal (recording)
  • Creativity A Conversation with Prof. Lydia Chilton (recording)
  • Design in Industry A Conversation with CS179 Alum Zeerak Ahmed (recording)
  • Design Feedback A Conversation Prof. Steven Dow (recording)
Project 1 (Milestones due each Thursday, starting Thursday Feb 4th)
Project 2 (Milestones due each Thursday, starting Thursday March 4th)
  • Milestone 1: Identify candidate problem areas(Description, Project Overview)
  • Milestone 2: Needfinding
  • Milestone 3: Approach thesis
  • Milestone 4: First UI prototypes; Pitch to studios and external evaluators for live feedback
  • Milestone 5: Riskiest Risks
  • Milestone 6: Refined prototype of concept and UI
  • Milestone 7: "Field evaluation"
  • Milestone 8: Complete evaluation, refined design, final report
  • Final Presentations to entire class and external evaluators
    A very important note We expect that some teams will deviate somewhat from the suggested timeline. That’s fine. Two constraints:
  • You have to have a mature product concept at the end of Milestone 4.
  • You have to notify your TF as soon as you know that you are making changes to your timeline. Tell them what timeline you plan to follow. If they agree with the change, they will grade your progress with respect to this mutually agreed-upon timeline.
Syllabus: Course Objectives and Policies

By the end of the course, you will have the skills to design innovative interactive products that are useful, usable and address important needs of people other than yourself.

Learning Objectives

  1. Discover The first question in Design is “What problem should we solve?”. Finding a good problem, particularly one that is important to people other than yourself, is hard because many big problems are so ingrained in people’s lives that they no longer notice them. You will learn the techniques for conducting systematic observations and for analyzing the data from those observations. These techniques will help you identify valuable design opportunities.
  2. Invent Creativity is about finding solutions that are novel, surprising and valuable. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and practiced. You will learn about the cognitive underpinnings of creativity and you will learn several techniques for managing your creative process.
  3. Design Once you have an idea for a useful product, you will need to design it to be usable. You will learn the besics of human perception, motor performance, and cognition, as well as a number of design principles, that will help you generate designs for usable interactive systems.
  4. Evaluate Your first (or second, or third) design will never be perfect. We will share with you several techniques for evaluating your designs with real people.
  5. Communicate As a designer, you need to commucate your findings and ideas to other designers, to clients, to funders, etc. Effective communication will be a big part of your professional success. Besides preparing weekly written reports, you will have at least three opportunities during the course to pitch a product concept to external evaluators (designers, entrepreneurs, etc) and to receive feedback.
  6. Succeed on a team Working on a team is hard: your life depends on several other people, yet you have no authority to tell them what to do. So what can you do as a team member to help make your team happy and successful? You will learn a few techniques that successful teams use to manage communication and conflict.

Course Policies

  • Lecture and Studio attendance is mandatory. If you have to miss a lecture or studio, you must let your team and studio leader know in advance, and receive an acknowledgment from both. You are allowed two excused absences (i.e. reported and acknowledged) for the semester without penalty; thereafter you will receive zero credit for the missed studio. To receive credit for attendance, you must arrive on time.
  • Active participation is essential in this class and will contribute to the final grade.
  • Do not abuse your electronic device privileges during classtime. The evidence that access to electronics in class can be harmful to your own learning and others around you continues to grow: multitasking incurs a cognitive cost, students who take notes on laptops learn less than those who take notes on paper, laptops adversely impact not only the people using them, but also those around them.
  • You are welcome to knit or sketch, as long as you do it in a way that does not distract those around you.
  • Take your own notes, even though the slides will be made available. We recommend notebooks with dotted paper — the dots provide just enough of a guide so that you can draw neat sketches, but they do not get in the way of your drawings.
  • No auditors allowed. During class activities and discussions, we will all take intellectual risks and make ourselves vulnerable at times. For that reason, we will strive to create a supportive community in class. Interlopers (auditors, etc.) would detract from that goal.
  • Visitors OK, but please introduce them. It’s OK for a class member to bring a guest to a lecture. But if you do so, please alert an instructor prior to the start of the class so that your guest can be introduced to the rest of the class. Also, please make a name tag for your guest at the beginning of the class so that they can be integrated into our community.
  • All students’ first point of contact is their section TF. All students’ second point of contact is the lead TF. All TFs have been instructed to respond within one day, and you should let Prof. Glassman know if they fail to meet that guideline. If something needs to be escalated to Prof. Glassman, please send her an email with a subject line beginning with “[CS 179]” and she will respond within two days. If she does not, please reply to your original email so it is brought back to the top of her inbox.

Diversity and inclusion

In an ideal world, science would be objective. However, much of what we know about design is subjective, reflects the behaviors and preferences of a non-representative sample of the world's population, and is historically built on a small subset of privileged voices. In this class, we will make an effort to learn from a diverse group of designers and researchers, but limits still exist on this diversity. We acknowledge that it is possible that there may be both overt and covert biases in the material due to the lens with which it was written or because of how the participants contributing to the research were chosen. Integrating a diverse set of values, abilities, cultures, etc. is important for building design knowledge that equitably benefits everyone. We would like to discuss issues of diversity in design as part of the course from time to time.

Please contact us if you have any suggestions to improve the quality and diversity of the course materials.

Furthermore, we would like to create a learning environment in our class that supports a diversity of thoughts, perspectives and experiences, and honors your identities (including race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, politics, religion, etc.). We (like many people) are still in the process of learning about diverse perspectives and identities. If something is said in class (by anyone) that made you feel uncomfortable, please talk to us about it.

As a concrete step toward creating a civil and supportive environment in our class, we ask everyone to follow the no-dogma rule: Because design directly impacts the world, it is inevitable that our discussions will touch on controversial issues. Everyone is welcome to share their positions, but you have to do it in a manner that is respectful toward people who disagree with you. No position is self-evidently correct. People who support a different position may have good reasons for doing so. You may not pass judgement on people who think differently from you. If you are baffled by what another person says, consider asking Why? Why? Why? until you understand the underlying reason for their stance before jumping to argue your point.

If you feel like your performance in the class is being impacted by your experiences outside of class, please don’t hesitate to come and talk with us.

What to do if some piece of course technology fails

It is unlikely, but possible, that some piece of technology we use in the course breaks or that the course staff make a mistake somewhere. For example, we may forget to upload the paper you are supposed to read, the Canvas site may go dead, etc. If you detect a problem, please follow these steps:

  1. See if you can come up with a quick fix (e.g., can you find the paper elsewhere else on the internet?)
  2. Check the discussion forum and if you are the first to notice the problem, create a post to report the problem (and perhaps to share your fix). This will help make sure that everyone is on the same page and that if somebody else has found a solution, they can share it quickly.
  3. Do as much of the work as you can.
  4. Do not panic if the TF or the instructor do not respond immediately — if there is a problem beyond your control, we will accept late work without penalty.


Your course grade will consist of a combination of your grades on your assignments (80%) and professionalism (20%). Professionalism includes class participation, teamwork, adherence to deadlines, collaboration acknowledgements, timely arrival to your studios, etc. Note that most of the assignments will built toward long-term team-based projects. You will have to do and submit work every week, but we will do major grading only three times during the semester: at the end of the Project 1, four weeks into the Final Projects (at the time you pitch your product concepts) and at the and of Final Projects. Each week, however, you will receive prompt comments on your progress from your TFs. There will also be a small amount of points given each week reflecting whether the team made "serious progress" that week (that's to keep you reasonably paced).

Regrade policy

It is very important to us that all assignments are properly graded. If you believe there is an error in your assignment grading, please submit an explanation in writing to your studio leader (Cc-ing the instructor) within 7 days of receiving the grade. No regrade requests will be accepted orally, and no regrade requests will be accepted more than 7 days after receipt of the initial grade.

Academic Integrity

In general, many activities in the class will be collaborative and we will expect you to work with others. In all cases such collaboration has to be acknowledged. Each assignment and quiz will come with a detailed collaboration policy.

Accommodations for students with disabilities

If you have a health condition that affects your learning or classroom experience, please let the instructors know as soon as possible. We will, of course, provide all the accommodations listed in your AEO letter (if you have one), but we find that sometimes we can do even better if a student helps us understand what really matters to them.

Mental health

If you experience significant stress or worry, changes in mood, or problems eating or sleeping this semester, please do not hesitate to reach out to the professor. There are also several free and confidential resources available to you:

  • Counseling and Mental Health at UHS , 617-495-2042 (during business hours), 617-495-5711 (at all other times)
  • Room 13, 617-495-4969

We recognize that mental health challenges can be intermittent, that a person who is doing great in many aspects of their life may have difficulties with others. We recognize that mental health challenges can be invisible to outsiders making it hard to get the support and understanding you need. We will do everything we can to help.

Previous offerings

Lecturing Professor
Elena Glassman
Assistant Professor of Computer Science specializing in human-computer interaction

Zoom Office Hours
Sign up for a 10 minute slot.
Let me know if all slots are filled or there are no slots at a reasonable time within your time zone.
Some Past Guests
Marion Boulicault
MIT Philosophy Dept


UW Human Centered Design Engineering, UC Irvine

Northwestern U Technology and Social Behavior program, Delta Lab