Kevin Cheng  

A Review of UCLIC

September 18th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

UCLIC (pronounced You-Click) stands for the University College London Interaction Centre. I attended their MSc in Human-Computer Interaction and Ergonomics, a joint program between Computer Science and Psychology, this past year. As promised, to aid others in selecting their program in the future, I am giving a full review of the program. This review is going to be straight forward and honest. That’s to say UCLIC are not endorsing the review and I am simply expressing my views of the program, both positive and negative.

University Background

UCL is located in central London, minutes walk to Soho, Leicester Square, and the British Museum. I couldn’t have asked for a better location. The program is a one year program which will naturally come with some limitations but also make it more viable for those in industry to step away and do the course full time - one of the reasons for the increasing number of one year programs.

UCL is a part of University of London, as is the London School of Economics, Imperial College and others. I’ve heard UCL has been ranked anywhere from third to fifth in terms of universities in the UK but don’t really have any evidence to back that.

Program Overview

The program consists of two terms of teaching, four graded components, two final exams and one thesis. The courses are

  • Computational HCI
  • Applied Cognitive Science
  • Organisational Informatics
  • Physical Ergonomics
  • Design Tools and Techniques
  • Professional Skills
  • Process of Design
  • Foundations of HCI
  • Student Seminars

You can see more about the program in their handbook (pdf).

Personal Background

For those that don’t know, my personal background includes a Computer Engineering undergraduate degree and four years as a professional HCI consultant, working on projects involving a number of Fortune 500 companies. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, but to give context into my perspectives.

My reasons for selecting UCLIC were numerous.

  1. The length of the program was more suitable to my professional needs.
  2. The program included Ergonomics and Cognitive Science, areas I wanted to learn more about (whilst some universities offered courses in programming which I didn’t need).
  3. Central London was much better for mine and my girlfriend’s lifestyle (and her job opportunities).
  4. I chose a UK school instead of North American for the experience. The tuition cost was similar but here, I could see a more international take on usability and HCI.
  5. In addition, London acts as a perfect hub for travelling within Europe. Many countries are a short flight away.

Taught Material

In general, you can see from the courses that the material is quite broad and covers a lot of different areas. As I mentioned in my last article, one learns what they don’t know in graduate school. Many have quoted the phrase, “you’ll get out of it as much as you put in” and this couldn’t apply more to a condensed program like this. One example is when the methodology of contextual inquiries was covered within one lecture. Initially, this brevity seemed to me like an oversight for a tool that I found indispensable as a consultant - certainly more application of this was necessary. What transpired was that the entire program was structured in a similar manner. Tools and references were presented, different views exposed, and it was up to the individual to learn more. After all, even within a class of just 30-40, the goals of each individual varied greatly.

Here’s an all too detailed run down on my thoughts for each course.

Physical Ergonomics was comprehensive and structured down to a science. The material combined well with the project work and intermediate fieldworks, serving to reinforce one another. In fact, one could say it has settled too much into its routine for many examples are from at least a decade ago. The principles still apply, of course, but there are plenty of modern examples of human factors issues and design problems worth tackling or discussing and this solid course would improve with more current examples.

Professional skills covered a wide range of subjects from presentations skills to statistical analysis. Now, as a consultant and engineer, I’m familiar with many of these subjects and initially found these a waste of my money and time. I liken them to the supplementary courses that I was required to take in my engineering program. In engineering, I was required to take courses related to ethics, writing, requirements and (gasp) usability. These were all small components which later became the difference between what I considered a well rounded engineer and a simply technically competent one. Equally, the subject taught here didn’t take up much time, but helped complement the material.

Applied Cognitive Science, Processes of Design and Organisational Informatics all covered a range of topics which I felt were useful - though sometimes by their very nature somewhat vague. Guest speakers added depth where appropriate. My major issue with these courses was the seeming lack of organisation between the lecturers, however. One instructor might cover similar material or simply have no insight into what had already been discussed, making for rather disjointed courses. I high level plan with clear points on who is covering what would probably help this a lot.

In some courses, such as Computational HCI, one couldn’t help but feel like they’d just paid a wad of cash to be a guinea pig. Our text book was a soon to be published text book but it was alas, in need of a fair bit of editing. This lead to a class structure that ranged from brilliantly interesting discussions to classes where you walked out thinking, “what just happened?” I’m told that this practise of having students guinea pig instructor text books is quite common in the UK so perhaps it’s a cultural difference.

Design Tools and Techniques was the practical side of the program and, in conjunction with a design project that lasted the term, taught design methodology. I feel like this particular area was effective but could probably emulate more from design schools. Looking at even standard design projects from Carnegie Mellon, for example, where every student seems to come out with some sort of weather forecast display in their portfolio, the DTT course seems to have more room for improvement. Having said that, it does utilize the techniques you learn and you do work on a design throughout the course of three months.

Student Seminars was an interesting model where a segment of the week was set aside for students to schedule and present what they desired - or so it was advertised. In the end, the schedule was set for the entire year as were the topics: every group was to present on a number of industry recognized names and their work. While this was a worthwhile exercise, I still wish they had given the time for the class to discuss topics they chose as well.

On a random note, I should mention that we were fortunate enough to have Don Norman come to speak with us for a day when he was in town for NN/g business. Credit to UCLIC for managing to pull that off.

Graded Components

As I said, the program has four graded components excluding exams and thesis. These include two write ups on design “mini-projects” at the end of each taught term, one research paper and a portfolio.

One aspect that becomes blatant in the program is the emphasis on reflection. In all but the research paper, the objective is to reflect on your learning. In the case of the mini-projects, what you learnt in the two week process of working with a small team on a design goal and in the case of the portfolio, the reflections encompass the entire course.

It’s rather reminiscent of, “What I Did Last Summer” in its goals - forcing the student to state explicitly what they learnt.

In some ways, this is understandable. If you can articulate what you learnt, it reinforces it for yourself and also proves it to the grader. However, it’s quite often fairly intellectually brain dead, especially for a course of that level. I would have far preferred to write an analytical piece on a subject instead.

The portfolio is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a selected collection of your work throughout the year with a 10 page summary which ties together the evidence presented into a package of, “What I Learnt this Year.” Equally cheesy as the two mini-project reviews but surprisingly, it was rather insightful to me. A lot of the statements I wrote last time about what I learnt or didn’t learn came through the very reflections I deride. However, if one’s forced to reflect on the whole course already in the portfolio, I still question why two other courseworks need to follow the same pattern. A formally graded design would perhaps be more appropriate.

Perhaps that is what also leads to seemingly mediocre design projects. Everybody knows the designs themselves are not graded, but simply your thoughts on the process throughout the design period. Not exactly motivation to innovate and work in a dynamic, creative group.

One other issue was communication on the criteria. Both students and instructors at times seemed to have implicit assumptions about what the other would be doing and this led to many debates over final grades. The only thing I can suggest here is to be crystal clear on the marking criteria to both the markers and the students, and if you’re a student, double check.

Thesis/Project

Not much needs to be said about the thesis. It’s a three month project on a topic of your choosing (or if you wish, of their choosing). Topics need to be approved but everyone helps to guide topics to something appropriate for research. The thesis is an opportunity to spend months researching a subject you (hopefully one you are truly interested in) and really dive deep while applying the skills and theory garnered thus far. The individual experiences depend greatly on the advisor and your own style, hence my apprehension in talking too much about it. I can say that it was a good indicator of whether you want to extend such an experience into a PhD. I can also say that I was very happy with my experience and am grateful for an understanding advisor.

Overall Comments

UCLIC has incredible potential to really make a mark in the UK, if not the international, HCI scene. The interaction room they have set up currently has a smattering of interesting tools and toys but is far from being a media lab of any sort. One of the problems is that the program seems to have the vision but lacks the uniform organization to execute on it. Perhaps it’s politics, perhaps it’s academic budget bureaucracy, perhaps it’s simply inertia of moving to a new building. Whatever the case, I really feel UCLIC just needs a small push through a collective agreement on a direction to get over the hump before snowballing into a truly impressive program.

As it stands now, the program does an admirable job of covering a lot of breadth in a vast and varied field in the short span of a year and still giving students the opportunity to dive deeper into a project for several months. Although areas of the program could do with some tweaks and communication improvements, I have no regrets in attending the course. If you want to find out more about my experiences, or perhaps about other programs I had considered and researched, feel free to contact me.

7 Responses to “A Review of UCLIC”
Victor wrote:

Thanks for posting the review.
One thing is that HCI has been traditionally “dominated” is by psychology. I wonder if you missed learning aspects from the social sciences (i.e. ethnomethodology applied to collaborative systems and system design or whatever is trendy now) and aspects from design/art, so that you could have an even wider perspective?.

Looking at their website they seem to be still following the “Nielsen” approach, where the design is rather (or totally) functional but not interesting from any design perspective.

Should interfaces be only usable or usable, nice to look at and pleasurable to use?

Regards

Kevin Cheng wrote:

We did learn aspects of ethnomethodology quite extensively actually and I probably should have mentioned that as part of the Process of Design curriculum.

Their lack of design-centric instructors and overall lack of emphasis on design being reflected in both their website (which I understand will be updated but is again a victim of bureaucracy) and the program itself did and still does frustrate me but not everyone is looking for design when they choose to learn about HCI and I can respect that.

James wrote:

I’m currently working with a college who is attending uclic on a part time basis. I’m not sure if the experience is parculiar to them but the course seems overly obsessed with both making the students report on their learning experiences and their lecture attendance.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

James, see the section I wrote under “Graded Components” section. It begins:

One aspect that becomes blatant in the program is the emphasis on reflection.

Basically, I agree with your colleague. I guess they haven’t learnt yet.

James wrote:

Your right, its strange you’d have thought they would as they ask for so much feedback. However the attitude towards attendance does puzzle me. The English system is based on personal responsibility, uclic seem to have adopted a school system where attendance is a mandatory component. This is unusual as the students are there in a voluntary aspect and they pay for the course.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

I have to disagree with the attendance part. I thought you just meant reflecting on lecture material which you can do but don’t have to. I don’t feel they put any sort of mandatory requirement on me and I certainly wasn’t there for close to 100% of the time.

James wrote:

Ok perhaps it has changed.

I can’t verify the accuracy of this but as I understand it a current student is being dealt with harshly due to poor attendance dispite meeting all the work requirements and deadlines.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?