My Path to Human-Centered Design at Princeton

Posted on behalf of Laura Herman.

As I look forward to my position as a User Experience Researcher in Silicon Valley next year, I have begun to reflect on the four years at Princeton that prepared me for my next adventure. Through a combination of courses and extracurricular groups, I was able to bolster my understanding of Human-Computer Interaction.  It is my hope that this post will provide a helpful framework to any future Princeton students who are similarly interested in the intersection of behavior and technology.

Relevant Academic Pursuits

First and foremost, Professor Chetty’s Human Computer Interaction course was a wonderful avenue to academically explore HCI methodologies. Throughout the class, a group project provides an opportunity to empirically apply the methodologies in question. (This is also a great opportunity to produce a concrete prototype for your portfolio!) I found it rewarding to produce an engaging, easy-to-use user interface to address sexual health issues on Princeton’s campus.

In a similar academic vein, the Program in Cognitive Science is a complementary certificate program to almost any major. The coursework spans multiple disciplines, including but not limited to: computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and mechanical engineering. Within these categories, I particularly enjoyed the Psychology of Decision-Making, Sensation & Perception, and Computer Vision. Personally, I declared Psychology as my major, and I found my psychological training quite pertinent for my UX internship this past summer. Various psychological research projects informed the quantitative and qualitative methodology I utilized in my UX research process.

The new Entrepreneurship certificate is another avenue through which to explore design thinking and related concepts. Hosted by the Keller Center, the program offers classes such as “Creativity, Innovation, and Design” and “Design for Understanding.” Outside of coursework, the Keller Center also hosts a variety of co-curricular workshops, seminars, and lecture series.  Amongst these programs are the eLab Summer Accelerator Program and eLab semester incubator, which provide an avenue to build out startups or other entrepreneurial ventures. Many of the aforementioned offerings take place in the eHub, a collaborative co-working space that was unveiled in Fall 2015.

The Woodrow Wilson School has also revealed a newfound focus on human behavior: the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science.  Their programming includes lunchtime talks on relevant behavioral issues and courses taught by faculty members cross-listed with a variety of departments. The center’s focus is interdisciplinary, so it is an exciting avenue to explore the design of everything from public policy to environmental engineering. Recently, I took a class with a faculty member entitled “Human Factors: Psychology for Engineering, Environmental, and Energy Decisions.” I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to apply psychological theories to sustainable engineering, and I produced a prototype for a behaviorally-conscious smart meter.

For a more visual design focus, I would encourage students to explore the Visual Arts department.  The invitation-only certificate program has recently fostered a plethora of graphic design students alongside traditional visual artists.  Classes such as Typography (which focuses on text design) and Visual Form (in which design of a technological interface) are particularly relevant to Human-Centered Design. In my typography class with David Reinfurt, I became more fluent using design tools– ranging from old-school letterpress machines to Adobe inDesign.

Relevant Extracurricular Opportunities

An acutely underappreciated resource is the Council on Science and Technology’s StudioLab.  As an ambassador, I have had the opportunity to host workshops in the space, which is in the basement of Fine Hall. The goal of Studio lab is to “explore the intersections and shared creativity across STEM, the arts, humanities, and social sciences.” The workspace includes machines for 3D printing, laser cutting, virtual reality, motion sensing and much more. Every Friday, StudioLab hosts a “Café,” which is an opportunity for students to freely experiment with the various technologies. The StudioLab encourages creation to any end: extracurricular endeavors, coursework, or personal projects. In fact, it was a StudioLab Café that first ignited my interest in Virtual Reality, which I will be researching full-time next year.

There are also a variety of interdisciplinary, design-focused courses held in the space. One example is “Transformations in Engineering and the Arts,” which explores the parallels and intersections of design/composition in engineering and the arts, emphasizing a merging of artistry and systematic thinking. Students learn to create as engineer-artists and artist-engineers. The course is organized around four modules: a) Visuals, b) Sound, c) Structure and d) Movement, led by faculty from COS, MUS, CEE, MAE with faculty from the Lewis Center for the Arts. Additionally, the Council on Science and Technology hosts a Design Challenge in partnership with a service organization on campus each year. The 2017 challenge, for example, was “Rethinking Mass Incarceration,” in collaboration with the SPEAR conference. The challenge sought to encourage in-depth research, rapid prototyping, design thinking, and technology use (e.g. 3D printer, MoCap, etc.).

Another service-oriented design activity is Tiger Challenge, a co-curricular design-thinking program. Participating students work with partner communities to develop lasting innovations and the capacity to address seemingly intractable societal issues, such as affordable housing and adolescent mental health. Though the name suggests otherwise, it is not a competition. Rather, each team is supported throughout the process, receiving training, mentorship, space, and resources.

Relevant Conferences

Two Princeton-sponsored conferences were particularly mind-expanding in my experience: Envision and Designation. Envision is focused on contemplating the future via an examination of the implications of emerging technologies. For example, this year’s conference investigated the effects of Artificial Intelligence, Enhanced Interfaces, Nanoscale, and Synthetic Biology on Catastrophic & Existential Risk, Material Advancement, Space Development, Economic & Social Change, and Human Enhancement. Speakers include professors at large research institutions (Future of Humanity Institute @ Oxford, Department of Biology @ MIT, Government & Technology @ Harvard, etc.) as well as decision-making executives at forward-thinking ventures (Deep Space Industries, IBM Research AI, NeuroTechX, PayPal, Permutation Ventures, Foresight Institute, etc.).

Designation, sponsored by student-led Business Today, was founded in 2017 to fill the gap in undergraduate curriculums of the principles that govern design in real agencies, companies, and firms. The two-day conference in NYC provides keynotes from impressive design leaders, workshops for design-thinking skills, and intimate executive seminars. I was particularly blown away by the opportunity to speak with Ratna Desai @ Google UX, Daniel Burka @ Google Ventures, Jamie Myrold @ Adobe, Alison Rand @ frog, John Couch @ Hulu, and Christina Janzer @ Slack (who founded Facebook’s UX team!).

Relevant Events

Lastly, I will touch on some programs offered through the Entrepreneurship Club (or E-Club, as it is colloquially referred to). With 14 teams, there are a plethora of opportunities for the 1600+ active members. TigerTrek, TigerLaunch, and HackPrinceton are particularly applicable to this post. HackPrinceton is the landmark on-campus hackathon, attracting students from across the country and world to create, build, and develop. This biannual 36-hour event is open to all experience-levels: the opportunities for collaboration and excitement are plentiful. This is a great opportunity to develop iterative (and scrappy!) design skills.

TigerLaunch was the first national collegiate pitch competition, and it is currently the nation’s largest student run entrepreneurship competition. Each year, TigerLaunch hosts four regional events (the 2018 locations were Seattle, Chicago, NYC, and Paris). Finalist teams come to Princeton to compete for $30,000+ in funding and opportunities to pitch to world-class Venture Capital firms, like Sequoia Capital. In general, TigerLaunch aims to offer networking, funding, and/or mentorship to all participants.

Finally, Silicon Valley TigerTrek offers a life-changing experience for 20 Princeton students. Over spring break, this select group travels to Silicon Valley to visit a variety of firms, ranging from small startups to large technology behemoths to Venture Capital firms. The highly immersive experience offers intimate Q&A sessions with leaders of the field. I was honored to attend this past year, and I had the opportunity to speak with Marne Levine (COO @ Instagram), Jack Dorsey (CEO @ Twitter and Square), Jeff Jordan (General Partner @ Andreesen Horowitz), and Joe Gebbia (Founder @ Airbnb), among others. Outside of these fascinating conversations, the trip affords ample networking and mentorship opportunities as well as a tight-knit community. Personally, I forged lasting connections with my peers through impassioned debates, electric brainstorming, and collaborative experimentation. TigerTrek left me inspired and electrified– ready to fully engage with the technology community as a user advocate.

Throughout my four years in the orange bubble, the campus-wide focus on technology has been exponentially amplified; I am sure that the opportunities mentioned in this post will only be augmented in the years to come. Though Princeton may not be the first university that comes to mind when considering an education in Human-Computer Interaction, I was able to find a unique recipe of activities to satiate my UX-focused curiosity. I encourage you to do the same. After all, HCI is an inherently interdisciplinary field: a fitting conduit for Princeton’s liberal arts education.

Get in touch with Laura Herman here.