Computer Laboratory

Course pages 2014–15

Theories of Interaction and Socio-digital Design

Principal lecturer: Dr Alan Blackwell
Taken by: MPhil ACS, Part III
Code: R215
Hours: 16
Prerequisites: This course is appropriate to any ACS student, and will assist in the development of critical thinking, argument and long-form writing skills. Prior experience of essay-based humanities subjects at university or secondary school will be beneficial, but not required.


This module is a theoretically-oriented advanced introduction to the broad field of human-computer interaction, extending to consider topics such as tangible and embodied interaction, augmented reality, computer-supported collaborative work, participatory design, cognitive models of users and others. The course will not address purely engineering approaches such as development of interactive hardware or user interfaces (unless there is a clear theoretical question being addressed). The module is based on a reading group originally developed in collaboration with the Socio-Digital Systems group at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Participants may include visitors from that group and/or interdisciplinary research students and academic guests from other University departments.


The syllabus will remain broadly within the area of human-computer interaction, including theories of design practice and the social contexts of technology use. Individual seminar topics will be selected in response to contemporary and recent research developments, in consultation with members of the class and visiting contributors.

Topics previously addressed in the seminar series can be reviewed on the website.

Representative topics in the next year are likely to include:

  • Evaluation methods for interactive systems.
  • Public policy related to digital technologies.
  • Socio-political perspectives on online behaviour.
  • Aesthetics and emotion in design.
  • Cognitive or sociological accounts of user behaviour.
  • Structuralist and post-structuralist analyses of user interfaces.


On completion of this module, students should have developed facility in discussing and critiquing the aims of their research, especially for an audience drawn from other academic disciplines, including the following skills:

  • Theoretical motivation and defence of a research question.
  • Consideration of a research proposal from one or more alternative theoretical perspectives.
  • Potential critique of the theoretical basis for a programme of research.


In advance of each seminar, all participants must read in advance a current (or occasionally "classic") paper presenting theoretical perspectives on the design of interactive and socio-digital systems.

At the start of the seminar, one or two group members will present a brief critical introduction to the paper, after which the remainder of the session consists of open discussion.

Each member of the class must submit a written critical review discussing the paper presented at one of the seminars - this will usually be the session at which they have contributed the opening introduction.

Throughout the course, students will be expected to keep a "reflective diary", recording the theoretical focus of each seminar, a summary of the themes that arise in discussion, and ways in which the discussion relates to their own research interests, possibly including theoretical perspectives that they have encountered in other modules.

Practical work

There is no practical work element in this course.


  • Written critical review of a single discussion text (20%)
  • Reflective diary submitted at the end of the module (60%)
  • Contributions to the seminar discussion - focused attention and well-considered feedback on the perspectives of other participants will be particularly valued (20%)

Recommended reading

To be assigned during the module, as discussed above. Most set readings will be available either from the ACM Digital Library, or from institutional repositories of the authors.