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IM923 User Interface Cultures: Design, Method and Critique


20/30 CATS - (10/15 ECTS)
Module Convenor - Dr Michael Dieter



  • 40% 2 x Group Reports (750 words each);
  • 60% Essay (3000 words).

For 30 CATS:

  • 40% 2 x Group Reports (750 words each);
  • 60% Essay (4500 words).

Indicative Syllabus

Week One - Media Theory of the Interface
This session will introduce the overarching concept of this module: the interface. Wherever there are humans working with machines, and especially computers, there are interfaces. But what exactly counts as an interface, and how might different modes of inquiry, concrete analysis and critique of interfaces be conducted? Is an interface a screen? Is it the medium by which a person relates to a machine? Can machines 'interface' without humans? Are interfaces 'things', 'spaces', 'processes' or 'relations'? In this first week, we will consider several competing definitions of an interface, and reflect on how these influence our understanding of the limits and capabilities of humans and machines in digital cultures. We will consider the importance of approaching interfaces as cultural techniques and discuss the possibilities for practicing interface criticism.

Week Two - Shifting Paradigms in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): From Experts to Experiences

In this session, you will gain an appreciation of the development of human-computer interaction (HCI) as a discipline and understand how the specific design of an interface is strongly contingent upon historical contingencies and social contexts. Through the concept of the paradigm, we consider how HCI research has changed over time and how the design of interfaces is dependent on different ideas about users: as 'rational' experts, as cognitive actors, and as embodied subjects in specific situations. As ideas about interaction have changed, different forms of knowledge have come to be privileged. We will consider what has been described as the 'three paradigms' of HCI for designing how humans and computers interact, and then follow Rogers' detailed schema of classical, modern, and contemporary HCI theory. The latter is a long reading with tons of detail, but is not necessarily difficult - make sure you give yourself enough time to finish and reflect on this text. We will finally end this session with a consideration of the problems of 'experience' as an economic and phenomenological form of relation.

Week Three - Interactions Over Time: Researching Web Design Histories
This week broadly considers challenges of how to conduct historiographic research on interface design, focussing in particular on recent work at the intersection of web archives and the history of web design. We will consider how user interface design for the web has changed over three decades, especially as this has intersected with changing infrastructures, standards and the emergence of social media platforms. In the workshop, we will specifically engage with repurposing the affordances of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to trace these transformations in interface design over time through the creation of 'website biographies' as screencast documentaries.

Week Four - Critical Walkthroughs: Counter-Mapping the User Journey

While interfaces can be 'stand-alone' and studied at the level of signs and layout, many contemporary interfaces are designed to create 'user journeys', where the user passes through multiple interfaces within a larger, carefully planned out sequence. User journeys are often mapped in ways that resemble the technique of 'storyboarding', and this storyboard is an important ingredient for product design. When a journey has been developed, one of the ways it is further tested or present to stakeholders is through a walkthrough. In this session, we will be introduced to user journeys, experience mapping and the walkthrough as a method for critically studying interface design.

Week Five - Mid-Term Discussion: Flow, Habit and Distraction

This week shifts from the workshop format to take the form of theoretical discussion of the concepts of flow, habituation and distraction in the context of interaction design. In particular, we focus the work of Schüll on the production of gambling machines alongside theoretical work by Chun on habit and Lovink on social media distraction. How do these different accounts offer resources to problematize and critique commercial approaches to interface design? How should we consider compulsive forms of interaction in relation to discourses of addiction? Can these concepts and their related techniques also be utilized for more empowerning and progressive ends? In considering such questions, this week offers a mid-term reflection on some of the more complex socio-political issues attached to the contemporary digital interface.

Week Six: Reading Week

Week Seven - Targeted Engagement: Signals, Metrics and Trackers

This week considers how interfaces might be considered from the perspective of data signals and information transfers. That is, rather than examining 'the cultural layer' of signification, is it possible to perform a critical analysis of 'the technical layer' of machine operations and its relationship to experience design? In this session, we will discuss how networked interfaces function as a domain of logistical exchanges. Crossing over into the field of performance optimisation and behavioural advertising, this aspect of interfaces considers the problem of coordinating signal processing across networks that are highly distributed in space and time, as well as the social and political questions this kind of dataveillance has raised.

Week Eight - Producing Users: Design Ethnography and Interface Subjects
This week we will examine changing conceptions of the user and how ethnographic methods have been drawn into interaction design practices. Users can be both imagined or real. Designers and developers have an array of techniques and methodologies they utilize for defining, producing and studying users. During this session, we will consider changing conceptions of the user over time, and focus in particular on the influence of ethnographic methods. Pioneered by organisations such as Intel and Xerox in the 1980s, ethnographic studies promised to give access to a richer or more complete view of what users do than can be obtained through survey or experimental work. However, ethnography has had, and continues to have, a contested relationship with design practice. Its success in elaborating critical perspectives on the failure of design is mirrored by troubles making ethnographic insights actionable. This week we will discuss changing frameworks for producing and studying users, and experiment with the application of ethnographic methods for ourselves.

Week Nine - Will to Disconnect: Non-Use, Detoxing, Deactivation and Mindfulness
This week considers literature on non-use in the context of contemporary debates around digital detoxing, disconnection and mindfulness. Who has the luxury of quitting social media, even temporarily? Do practices like mindfulness offer some resistance to social media or is this merely another mode of productivity? In the class component, we will examine different 'disconnect' styles, along with the critiques of these practices, and discuss the limits and potentials of non-use.

Week Ten - Conclusion: Interface Design Futures
In the final week, we provide an overview and summary of the module and consider what kinds of socio-political and techno-cultural implications interface design practices suggest today. We will reflect on what we have learned and outline some emerging issues in interface cultures and critical HCI, including critiques of corporate influence, calls for decolonizing design and establishing autonomous potentials for interaction design. How might progressive or radically democratic approaches to interface design be developed? What proposals currently exist? What are the main stakes of these debates inside and outside the academy?

Illustrative Bibliography

Drucker, Johanna. 'Interface and Enunciation, or, Who is Speaking?', in Visualization and Interpretation: Humanistic Approaches to Display, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020, pp. 91-110.

Cramer, Florian, and Matthew Fuller. ‘Interface’, in Matthew Fuller (ed.) Software Studies: A Lexicon, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 149-152.

Wirth, Sabine. 'Between Interactivity, Control, and "Everydayness" - Towards a Theory of User Interfaces', in Florian Hadler and Joachim Haupt (eds) Interface Critique, Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2015, pp. 17-38.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Fedorova, Ksenia. Tactics of Interfacing: Encoding Affect in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020.

Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect, Cambridge: Polity, 2012.

Hookway, Branden. Interface, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Harrison, Steve, Deborah Tatar, and Phoebe Sengers. 'The Three Paradigms of HCI'. in Alt. Chi. Session at the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, San Jose, SIGCHI Conference, 2007: 1-18.

Rogers, Yvonne. ‘HCI Theory: Classical, Modern, and Contemporary’ [Selection]. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics 5, no. 2 (23 May 2012): 21-80.

Bardini, Thierry. Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, the Augmentation of Human Intellect and the Genesis of Personal Computing. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Bødker, Susanne. 'Third-Wave HCI, 10 Years Later - Participation and Sharing.' Interactions 22.5 (2015): 24-31.

Grudin, Jonathan. ‘Introduction: A Moving Target - The Evolution of Human–Computer Interaction’, in Julie A. Jacko (ed.) Human Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies, and Emerging Applications, Third Edition, CRC Press, 2012.

Moggridge, Bill. Designing Interactions, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Learning Outcomes

The module aims to encourage students to be able to:

  • gain a historical appreciation of the development of the user interface;
  • present an advanced comprehension of new media theory relevant to the analysis of contemporary user interfaces;
  • engage with and perform design techniques and emergent experimental methods for interface criticism;
  • acquire a complex understanding of the aesthetics and cultural politics of twenty-first century user interface cultures.

Important Registration Information:

CIM Students

  • You will need to make your optional module choices using the degree specific CIM module webform available in the CIM welcome page. All further instructions will be available to you on the webform.

  • The webform opens on Monday 12th September at 12:00 noon BST and closes on Monday 19th September at 12:00 noon BST

  • Gheerdhardhini (CIM PG Coordinator) will register you for your chosen modules, confirming your place in the module by 30th September, Friday.

  • If there are any queries, please get in touch with Gheerdhardhini via 

External Students

  • Computer Science – Please register your interest in the CIM module with the PG Administrator in your home department - 

  • Psychology - Your PG Administrator will be in touch before Term 1 about registering interest for CIM modules

  • All other external students - Please contact the CIM PG Coordinator (Gheerdhardhini) via email (, to request your optional module choice at the latest by Week 1 : Wednesday, 5th October, 17.00 BST.


  • Please be advised that you may be expected to have access to a laptop for some of these courses due to software requirements; the Centre is unable to provide a laptop for external students.

  • Please be advised that some modules may have restricted numbers and places are allocated according to availability and inter-departmental arrangements.

  • Please note that a request does NOT guarantee a place on the module and is subject to availability.

  • Gaining permission of a member of CIM teaching staff or a member of staff from your home department or filling in the eVision Module Registration (eMR) system with the desired module does NOT guarantee a place on that module.

  • Requests after the specified deadline will not be considered.

  • For external students - Only after confirmation of a place from CIM PG Coordinator can students’ or their home departments confirm their registration on eVision/MRM. Registrations by students who have not received confirmation of a place from CIM will be rejected via the system.

NOTE – The above-mentioned registration deadline also applies to the CIM optional modules running in Term 2. We will consider registrations again in the first week of Term 2, but only in relation to modules where there is availability.

We are normally unable to allow students (registered or auditing) to join/leave the module after the second week of it commencing.