What do you study in a Human-Computer Interaction program? 

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What is HCI?

As the name suggests, it is the study of the interface or interaction between humans and computers. This relationship has three components: the user (human), the technology (computer), and how these two work together. In nature, the term is a symbiotic relationship, meaning it benefits both parties. The bee and the flower are one example of symbiosis. In this case, the nectar provides food for the bee, which transfers the nectar to the next flower resulting in pollination.

You might wonder how the above analogy applies to computers – a machine that derives no benefit from the interaction, unlike the bee and the flower. The human uses the computer to perform a specific task, which the computer has been designed to do. Therefore, the two (person and machine) work together to accomplish the desired outcome.

In computer technology, it must be user-friendly for the operator to successfully obtain all the benefits of the hardware and software. Therefore, the system must be easy to learn, efficient, effective, and safe to use. Consequently, the computer’s design and build need to consider these factors to enhance the human-computer interaction.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 79,598 bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2017-18 (most recent data), about triple the number in 1995-1996. Business is number one with 386,201. The NCES doesn’t have stats on degree specialties within computer science, such as HCI.

What will you study?

Undergraduate and graduate programs offer a major in HCI; whereas, an associate’s degree is rare. You could enroll in computer science, computer programming, software engineering, or information technology at a technology school or local community college at that level. There are ample online opportunities at the associate degree level and the ability to proceed to a bachelor’s degree. The latter option is advisable as it will afford more job offers and typically a higher salary.

Bachelor’s Degree

The following are random samples of learning institutions with degrees in HCI.

University of Advancing Technology (UAT) has an online Bachelor of Science in HCI that explores human factors, such as cognition and behavior, and how they affect the user experience. Students study interfaces and interactions between two or more of these: mobile devices, PCs, the web, or next-generation platforms. Internships, apprenticeships, and community projects are also integrated into the program.

The B.S. in HCI at Carnegie Mellon University consists of a minimum of 360 credits or 35 courses covering the core requirements, electives, and a capstone project. The ten-core classes are divided between four under the heading of Mathematics and Statistics and six under HCI. The latter are grouped into Research and Evaluation, Ideation and Design, Psychology, and Prototyping. Students select one course in Psychology from a list that provides Perception, Social Psychology, Visual Cognition, Personality, Artificial Intelligence, Memory, and more. Some of the technical electives are UI Software, computer graphics, machine learning, cognitive robotics, technical animation, and several more.

The above are just two examples of undergraduate programs; however, they attest to the standard study plan at this level. A solid foundation in programming is crucial in HCI to develop algorithms and applications using programming languages like C++ and Java. Cognitive psychology applies to the understanding of how humans use computer technology. Prototyping aids in the testing of software before its general release. During the beta phase, technicians evaluate and analyze the design. Changes might be necessary to optimize usability.

Master’s Degree

The College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland has a 30-credit M.S. in HCI, 18 of which are from various electives. Examples of these are Advanced Usability Testing, Data Visualization, Design Thinking, Social Computing Technologies, and Security in a Networked World.

Another example is the M.S. in HCI offered at Georgia Tech, which is an interdisciplinary program in conjunction with four schools:

  • Industrial Design
  • Interactive Computing
  • Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC)
  • Psychology

This four-semester program has nine credits of core classes covering HCI, Psychology Research Methods for HCI (with lab), and a Professional Practice Seminar. During the first and second year, students typically take 12 credits of electives or specializations. Some of the choices are from these categories:

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Interactive Computing
  • LMC
  • Industrial Systems
  • Psychology
  • Music Technology

Carnegie Mellon, mentioned above, has a Master of Human-Computer Interaction comprised of seven core courses and five electives. Communications, User-Centered Research, Interaction Design Studio, Software Structures, and Programming Usable Interfaces are core examples.

Students contemplating a graduate program have numerous school choices and a range of curricula to suit their ambitions. Some take an interdisciplinary approach (see above), which collaborates with arts, humanities, psychology, informatics, information technology, computer engineering, etc.

The various study plans in this multidisciplinary field provide a broad job market – visual design, software engineering, user experience research, and cognitive systems are examples.

Additional Resources: 

Can I expect cutting-edge material and programs if I study Human-Computer Interaction? 

What areas outside of programming will I study during an undergraduate degree in Human-Computer Interaction? 

What kind of competition can I expect when applying for a Human-Computer Interaction program? 

What are the benefits of Human-Computer Interaction? 

What are the typical college requirements for a Human-Computer Interaction degree?

If Human-Computer Interaction is so important, why isn’t the expected job growth better? 

What is Human-Computer Interaction, and is it a new field?

What can you do with a Human-Computer Interaction degree? 

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