Lancaster MRes in HCI:
the course formerly known as ...

Alan Dix, Corina Sas

Computing Department, Infolab21, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

< Alan on the Web > < Corina on the Web >


The Lancaster MRes in HCI is now in its 10th year and included Laura Cowen, the previous editor of Interfaces, amongst its first cohort back in 2000. For its first nine years, the course was the result of a close collaboration between the Psychology Department and Computing Department, with Tom Ormerod and Linden Ball (Psychology) and Alan Dix and Corina Sas (Computing) forming the core team. More recently Imagination@Lancaster, the new design research centre has become major player in the course adding a fresh perspective and approach.

By any other name

In fact the course started life as the MRes DEAIS – the Design and Evaluation of Advanced Interactive Systems. Now it doesn’t take the most sophisticated knowledge of human perception and memory to realise this is quite a mouthful ... and is not what you instantly look-up on Google when looking for a masters course. We realised some years ago that this was a problem and indeed most of those taking the course had heard by word-of-mouth not through any directories or searches. It took several more years before the course team got round to doing the paperwork to change the name. We of course consulted current students and alumni working our way through numerous creative and exciting names as well as the more obvious candidates: interaction design – too narrow, human centred computing – too old sounding, until we settled on simply HCI!

What it is like

Like most UK masters courses the MRes includes a number of taught modules and options during the first two terms with a dissertation starting after Easter. However, throughout the core elements of the course there is a strong focus on individual and group design exercises.

This begins in the first term. Having shared an intensive taught week of general HCI course with other MSc students, the MRes students continue this is a group exercises involving collaboratively designing some form of individual data gathering including some coded or quantitative parts and some qualitative interview or observational data. They pool the quantitative data then individually analyse and report on their own qualitative data in conjunction with the larger group data. In some years, the topic of this has had an industrial focus, and others fitting in with some research theme in the department, and sometimes giving rise to published work.

However, the heart of the course is in the second term, where 2/3 of the time is spent on a Collaborative Research Project. In some years the briefs for this have been artificial, such as one year when the topic was ‘airport of the future’, including a guided tour of Manchester Airport. In other years the topic is again related to some research theme, for example, application areas for VoodooIO (Pin&Play) technology .

Industry links

It is expected that the majority of student dissertations are carried out in conjunction with external companies and organisations; this has included HP Labs, Sony-Ericcson, Bunnyfoot, the Jobcentre and Xerox (in the days of EuroPARC Cambridge). InfoLab21, which houses the Computing Department, also includes the Knowledge Business Centre, a collection of commercial Hi-Tech units. We have used contacts with companies there as the basis of student assignments, both for MRes students and undergraduates. Students have sometimes found themselves frustrated at the constraints of real business problems, but in the end it is a valuable lesson for them.

Telling the world

The course has been very successful in producing student work of publishable quality, with several student projects each year being the basis of conference or journal papers; venues have included British HCI conference, CHI and NordiCHI. Over the last few years, we have seen an exciting new trend with student work published based on the smaller-scale projects from earlier parts of the course.

As well as the course being the source of research, it is also the subject of research, with innovative aspects of the course, reported at HCI Educators and elsewhere.

Getting about

Dissertation placements have taken the MRes-ers to different parts of the UK from Glasgow, to Cambridge to Bristol (and notably Warrington), as well as occasionally overseas (Rome and New Zealand). Presenting and student volunteering has taken others to Vienna, Crete, Boston and Sweden. This year Jennefer Hart (see her article in the last issue of interfaces) won the design-a-student-volunteer -T-shirt competition at CHI!

Keeping in touch

From the very first cohort, the students organised their own Yahoo! group to keep in touch and this became the way we as staff often communicated in addition (or neglect) of the official mailing lists. While the University has its own student learning support systems, the added informality of an externally hosted system may have strengths, and of course benefits from levels of development and support not possible on bespoke local systems. It is becoming common now to hear of courses using Twitter or Facebook and this does seem to lend some of the same feeling as having a seminar in a coffee bar as opposed to an office … and you guessed it, yes, we have done that as well.

Perhaps most exciting was the way past students then decided to maintain their contact through a second ‘xres’ Yahoo! group. Now-a-days Facebook is rendering this nearly obsolete, but in the days before ubiquitous social networking (were there such days!) this fulfilled the same function.

When the course is over

Around half the students continue on to PhDs and around a half into various usability-related posts: such as user experience design, [job titles from web site]]. Some students have taken jobs where they did their dissertation work, including many at Sony-Ericsson in Warrington. Many of the students are themselves active members of the HCI community . Those with similar curses will know how exciting it is when we spot a paper by an ex-Mres-er, or hear one presenting at a conference; not to mention editing Interfaces!

Those who teach together

The astute reader might have noticed that the core course team for some years: Tom, Linden, Corina and Alan, were also the core organisers for the HCI 2007 conference at Lancaster. In addition, members of the team have written papers together and co-supervised PhD students. They also form the core of a cross-departmental seminar group on creativity and problem solving and the Lancaster team for a recent EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network. This is no mere happenstance; with increasingly packed schedules it is hard enough to collaborate with the person in the next-door office, let alone someone in a different department. Being forced together by course meetings and exam boards, gives an opportunity to discuss things beyond the course.

The future ...

The collaboration with imagination@Lancaster is only in its first year. It will be exciting to see how this changes the dynamic of the course and, as it filters this its way into prospectuses, we expect to see more students from a design background increasing further the diversity of the cohorts.

Lancaster is also the lead partner in DESIRE an EU ITN focused on scientific and technological creativity. The topics of DESIRE lies very close to the focus and ethos of the MRes and we expect to see the DESIRE researchers work alongside the MRes students in projects, and feed the outputs of DESIRE into innovate methods and tools we can use on the course.

Lessons – what we learn

As noted there are a number of publications about the course, mainly focused on the use of different forms of design brief during group projects. We encourage students not to think simply in terms of a traditional user-centred design lifecycle, but recognise that sometimes solutions have to be technology led (what can we do with what we have got), business problem led, or by observing and analysing emerging phenomena – not least for Web2.0.

But perhaps the most important feature of the course is the way the students learn from one another. We attract students from psychology and computing backgrounds, but also those with first degrees in creative arts, graphic design, music technology and even fashion. Some come straight from undergraduate courses, some after many years industrial experience, some already usability designers, and one even a professional golfer. The mix of gender, culture and background creates a stimulating environment for them, and moreover for us as the 'teachers'. Maybe the sign of a successful course is precisely when the teacher learns.


Articles about the course

Sas, C. and Dix. A. (2009). Understanding and Supporting Technical
Creativity. HCI Educators, Dundee, UK.

Sas, C. and Dix, A. (2008). Enhancing Creativity in Interaction
Design. In Creativity and HCI, 175-188. Springer Verlag.

Sas, C. and Dix, A. (2008). Business-driven assignment for teaching
HCI. HCI Educators, Rome, Italy.

Sas, C. and Dix, A. (2007). Alternative Design Brief for Teaching
Interaction Design. HCI Educator, Aveiro, Portugal.

Sas, C. (2006). Learning Approaches for Teaching Interaction Design.
HCI Educators.

Dix, A., Ormerod, T., Twidale, M., Sas, C., Gomes da Silva, P.A. and
McKnight, L. (2006). Why Bad Ideas are a Good Idea. HCI Educators, p.9-19,
Limerick, Ireland.

Sas, C. (2006). Teaching Interaction Design through Practitionersâ
Praxis. Proc. 7th Conf. Higher Education Academy, Dublin, Ireland

Sas, C. (under review). Research Knowledge Transfer through
Business-Driven Student Assignment. International Small Business Journal.

Peer-reviewed student publications (incomplete)

Hart, J., Ridley, C., Taher, F., Sas, C., Dix, A. (2008). Exploring
the Facebook Experience. In Proc. of NordiCHI ,471-474.

Day, N., Sas, C., Dix, A., Motoko, T., Bevan, C., Clare, D. (2007).
Breaking the Campus Bubble: Informed, Engaged, Connected. Proceedings
British Human Computer Interaction.

Clavering, S. and Nicols, A. (2007). Lessons Learned Implementing an
Educational System in Second Life. Proc. British HCI.

Schmidt, N., Sas, C. and Barnett-Cormack, S. (2006). Spatial data
fusion with visual feedback. British HCI workshop on Visualisation &

Hart, J., Reid, J. (2009). Can an ARG run automatically? CHI Extended
Abstracts 2009: 3619-3624

Sas, C. Dix, A., Hart, J., Su, R. (2009). Emotional experience on facebook
site. CHI Extended Abstracts 2009: 4345-4350

Hart, J. (2008). Exploring the Facebook Experience. Interfaces 77, 8-9.

Bloggs or writing about Facebook paper at NordiCHI

Full reference:
A. Dix and C. Sas (2009) Lancaster MRes in HCI: the course formerly known as ... In: Interfaces. xxxx 2009
See full MRes course details.
Website of the DESIRE EU ITN.


MRes contributing disciplines
MRes contributing disciplines

MRes module structure
MRes module structure

Alan Dix 3/6/2009