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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 1 – Introduction: Genealogies of the Interface

This week introduces the graphic user interface (GUI) by providing some historical background for the development of disciplines such as human-computer interaction and user experience design. Influential work of key figures in the development of these approaches will be discussed, along with tracing a lineage of key concepts through cybernetics, information theory, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics.

Week 2 – The Interface as Socio-Technical Assemblage

Following on from the previous week, this session reflects on the philosophical and critical stakes of the interface as a unique form of relation. In particular, it considers how concepts of play, politics and technology based on partitioning are complicated by the interface, and introduces ways of thinking through this form of relation as a socio-technical assemblage. It concludes with a discussion of transparency, black boxing and responsiveness as notable ideals of interface design centred on correspondence, delegation and ‘best fit.’

Week 3 – What is a User?

This week discusses the user as a highly contested figure in digital culture. It considers the many difficulties engineers and designers face in ‘configuring the user’ or attaining usability during software development, and introduces students to various techniques and methods deployed for these purposes, from user personas to the prominence of ethnography. We also reflect on more recent attempts to transcend this figure by designing for ‘people’ or ‘experiences,’ and how users frequently become unruly subjects through hacking, misuse and tactical practices.

Week 4 – [Graphics] – The Operational Image

How are visual cultures augmented as operational graphics through the interface? During this session, students are introduced to the grid as a cultural technique and the significance of ‘screen real estate.’ An emphasis is also placed on the critique of interface layouts through the analysis of pixels, buttons, forms, wireframes and templates using developer tools.

Week 5 – [Workflow] – Governance of Actions

This week examines techniques in the management of user actions and digital labour by steering and conducting relations through various parameters. It does so by focussing on information architecture, the use of flow charts and user journeys, the politics of ‘onboarding’ and ‘lock-in,’ along with the organization of links and dynamics of browsing practices.

Week 6 – [Processing] – Time and Cognition

This week considers the temporalities of user interfaces through debates over the speed of technological information processing versus human cognition, sense and perception. Along with theories of time critical media, students will be introduced to performance optimization techniques as research methods.

Week 7 – [Analytics] – Trace Data, Optimization and Social Media Platforms

This session outlines the use of large-scale user analytics in the optimization of interface design. It concentrates on debates and controversies over the ethics of trace data, especially in relation to privacy and the rendering of the user as a behavioural entity. Students will be introduced to the use of techniques like A/B testing, and also experiment with comparative methods for social media studies through ‘front-end’ analysis of user interfaces alongside with digital tools that collect data through repurposed application programmer interfaces (APIs).

Week 8 – [Storage] – From Web Archives to Digital Folklore

This week considers the various difficulties of archiving user interfaces. It examines several major web archival projects, and introduces students to how to perform interface analysis and critique over time by repurposing these repositories. This week also discusses the trends toward the professionalization of web design over the past two decades and the cultural significance of digital folklore.

Week 9 – Conclusion: The Mediation of Behaviour

The final week reflects on the overall trajectory of the module and concludes with a discussion of the ethico-political stakes of behavioural design as a dominant paradigm that informs our relations with digital infrastructures.

Illustrative Bibliography

Philip E. Agre, ‘Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy,’ The Information Society 10 (1994): 101-127.

Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Bro Pold, ‘Manifesto for a Post-Digital Interface Criticism,’ The New Everyday: A Media Commons Project (2014),

Thierry Bardini, Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

Vannevar Bush, ‘As We May Think,’ The Atlantic (July 1945): 102-124.

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

Douglas Engelbart, Augmenting the Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park: California, 1962.

Matthew Fuller and Florian Cramer, ‘Interface,’ in Software Studies: A Lexicon, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 149-153.

Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media, Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

John Harwood, ‘The Interface: Ergonomics and the Aesthetics of Survival,’ in Aggregate (eds) Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

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

Steven A. Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre, Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional, 1993.

Olia Lialina,‘Turing Complete User,’ Contemporary Home Computing (2013),

J. C. R. Licklider, ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis,’ IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1 (1960): 4-11.

Alan Lui, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Don Norman, ‘Why Interfaces Don’t Work,’ in Brenda Laurel (ed.) The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional, 1990, pp. 209-219.

Benedict Singleton, ‘(Notes Toward) Speculative Design,’ in Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell and James Trafford (eds) Speculative Aesthetics, London: Urbanomic, 2014.

Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, New York: Sternberg Press, 2012.

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

  • Please first discuss your optional module choices with you personal tutor during the personal tutor meetings and get their approval
  • Then complete and submit the optional module choice webform available in the CIM welcome page
  • The webform opens on 30th September at 14:00 BST and closes on 1st October at 15:00 BST
  • If there are any queries, please get in touch with Gheerdhardhini (PG Coordinator) via 

External Students

  • All other external students - Please contact the CIM PG Coordinator (Gheerdhardhini) via email (, to request your optional module choice by Week 1 : Wednesday, 7th 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.
  • 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.
  • CIM PG Coordinator will get back confirming your place in the module by 2nd October, Friday (For CIM students).
  • 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.