What is a Human-Computer Interaction Degree?

Human-computer interaction or HCI explores the interactions between computer systems and their human users. It focuses on how individuals and groups can interact with visual information, how we can understand what people need, and how we can make sure that our software is actually usable.

HCI degree programs prepare students to meet these challenges. The curriculum combines theories and concepts from computer science, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and industrial design and ergonomics. Its end goal is to produce professionals with the specialized knowledge to create intuitive interfaces that improve how we interact with and use emerging technologies.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Human-Computer Interaction – Four Year Duration
The objective of the bachelor’s program in human-computer interaction is to provide students with strong technical knowledge, skills, and understanding. The HCI undergraduate curriculum, therefore, combines classes in computing, mathematics and statistics, and science and engineering with core courses in the major. The culminating requirement of many programs is a capstone project that demonstrates learning outcomes.

Here’s an example of an HCI bachelor student’s plan of study:

  • Software Engineering – software development principles, strategies, tools, and quality assurance
  • Advanced Algorithms and Data Structures Design and Analysis – application of concepts and problem-solving techniques that are used in the design and analysis of efficient algorithms
  • Project Management – project management techniques to effectively plan, manage, and control software development projects
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) – creating and modifying required AI algorithms and techniques, AI solutions such as decision making and machine learning
  • Linear Algebra and Applications for Computing – the basics of linear algebra and related topics
  • Foundations of Human-Computer Interaction – analyzing interaction, identifying user needs, conducting usability studies, and designing, implementing, and testing usable and effective interfaces
  • Multimodal Interfaces – visual representation of data, tactile and gesture input, wearable computing, user body tracking, context-aware computing, multimodal and 3D use interfaces
  • Adaptive User Interfaces (AUI) – advanced methods in user interaction design; introduction to AUIs (interfaces that can change their appearance and/or interaction behavior to match the needs of an individual user); designing, implementing, and testing adaptive software applications
  • Wireless and Mobile Applications Development – developing and installing wireless applications on cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs)
  • Database Design – designing and constructing a database from concept to model to installation
  • Network and Security Applications Development – network and system-level programming on the Linux platform, design and implementation of high-performance network applications
  • Web Technologies – creating content for the web using widely adopted programming languages and standards
  • Introduction to Psychology – the scientific aspects of psychology: learning, perception, motivation, physiology, and human development
  • Introduction to Research Methods in Psychology – experimental and non-experimental techniques, statistical analysis in research design
  • Psychology of Technology – the interaction of humans with technology from a biological, psychological, and historical perspective; systems of logic, memory, learning, function of human senses, and cultural and social implications
  • Major Project – students select a problem to solve; they analyze the problem and its issues; they define their project’s objectives and design a solution

Master’s Degree in Human-Computer Interaction – One to Two Year Duration
At the master’s level, HCI students normally take some compulsory core classes and a set of courses focused on their specialization. Specialization options will vary from school to school, but the examples provided below are quite common. The typical HCI master’s program also includes internship and final project components.

Sample Core Courses

  • HCI – Professional Preparation and Practice
  • Psychology Research Methods
  • Human-Computer Interaction Foundations

Sample Specializations and Related Courses

Interactive Computing Specialization

  • Prototyping Interactive Systems
  • User Interface Design and Evaluation
  • Design of Online Communities
  • Cognitive Modeling
  • Computational Creativity
  • Visual Data Analysis

Digital Media Specialization

  • The Computer as an Expressive Medium
  • Principles of Interactive Design
  • Discovery and Invention in Digital Media

Industrial Design Specialization

  • Human-Centered Design
  • Visualizing Communication for Interaction
  • Interactive Products Studio
  • Service Design, Brand, and Value Creation
  • Healthcare Design of the Future

Psychology Specialization

  • Psychological Statistics for HCI
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensation and Perception
  • Topics in Cognitive Aging
  • Engineering Psychology

Doctoral Degree in Human-Computer Interaction – Five to Six Year Duration
Human-computer interaction doctoral students choose an area of concentration in which to focus their studies. The components of HCI doctoral programs include examinations, teaching experiences, and completion of a dissertation.

Within their individual concentration, doctoral candidates may take varying approaches to their research. They may choose to take a technical approach and develop innovative systems. A behavioral approach would entail studying human behavior with technology. A design approach would involve imagining future HCI possibilities.

Sample Concentrations

  • Social Computing – computing systems such as discussion forums and health and wellness support groups
  • Research through Design – design activity to produce knowledge versus a commercial product
  • Technical HCI – seeks to use technology to solve human problems and improve the world by expanding the number of things that can be done with computational systems
  • Learning Sciences and Learning Technologies – topics include intelligent tutoring systems and educational games

Degrees Similar to Human-Computer Interaction

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science concerned with building smart machines capable of performing tasks that normally necessitate human intelligence. In other words, students of AI lean how to develop artificial intelligence applications that are inspired by the ways people learn, reason, and make decisions.

Students study advanced mathematics, engineering, computing, programming, and data structures to envision and create the AI technologies and systems that continue to transform so many areas of our lives – from agriculture, construction, and transportation to healthcare, human resources, manufacturing, marketing, and more.

Cognitive Science
The focus of cognitive science is how information is perceived, processed, and transformed. The field seeks to learn how the mind regulates behavior. To this end, it draws on many different disciplines including anthropology, biology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, and sociology.

Computer Science
The field of computer science is focused on computer systems and how humans interact with them. Courses cover mathematics for computer science, artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, and introduction to program design.

Computer Software Engineering
Degree programs in computer software engineering teach students how to apply engineering principles to software development. Students learn how to design, build, test, implement, and maintain computer operating systems, as well as applications that allow end users to accomplish tasks on their computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices. Most programs begin with core engineering classes like mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Students who major in informatics learn how to build systems to retrieve and store information. They take courses in database architecture and management, multimedia systems, and human/computer interaction.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Robotics Engineering
Robotics engineering is focused on designing robots and robotic systems than can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.

Robotics Technology
Degree programs in robotics technology prepare students to work with engineers who design robots and robotic systems than can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.

Simulation Programming
Simulation programmers develop computer simulations that allow us to predict, see, think about, test, and manipulate real-world products, services, systems, processes, conditions, situations, and issues, without taking the risk and incurring the costs of doing so in the real world.

Math, engineering, and computer science are the overlapping disciplines that simulation relies on. Degree programs in the field are made up of courses in these technical and scientific areas, but they are also focused on teaching the skills of abstracting, theorizing, hypothesizing, and intellectualizing. In other words, simulation programming students learn everything they need to conceptualize the world into models that are designed to reach solutions to many of the world’s challenges and problems.

Skills You’ll Learn

Students of human-computer interaction come away from their studies with a considerable set of transferable skills:

  • Adaptability
  • Capacity for ongoing learning and grasping new concepts quickly
  • Communication and Collaboration / Teamwork
  • Conceptualization, Research, and Project Planning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Curiosity and Creativity
  • Design Thinking – the capacity to consider a problem from multiple perspectives before arriving at a solution
  • Empathy – the ability to anticipate and listen for others’ experiences
  • Flexibility
  • Growth Mindset – the ability to repeatedly test ideas and designs and receive feedback
  • Judgement and Decision Making
  • Leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Monitoring
  • Perseverance and Patience
  • Self-Motivation and Inspiration
  • Systems Analysis
  • Systems Design
  • Systems Evaluation
  • Time Management
  • Work Ethic

What Can You Do with a Human-Computer Interaction Degree?

The career opportunities for human-computer interaction graduates continue to grow, quite simply because companies in all sectors use interactive products, systems, and services. This means that they need HCI professionals and researchers to design and optimize these items. They need them to lead the design, development, and implementation processes through concepts, models, and prototypes. They need them to think outside the box to come up with innovative applications.

Here are just some of the sectors and industries in which HCI majors find employment:

  • Accounting
  • Banking and Finance
  • Charity, Not-for-Profit, and NGOs
  • E-commerce / Retail
  • Entertainment / Gaming
  • Healthcare
  • Higher Education
  • Hospitality and Tourism
  • Internet and Software
  • Manufacturing
  • Media / Mass Media
  • Medical Devices
  • Museums
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

These are some of the most common titles held by HCI professionals:

  • Digital Innovation Manager
  • Human Factors Engineer
  • Information Architect
  • Interaction Architect
  • Interaction Designer
  • Product Designer
  • Product Manager
  • Search Quality Analyst
  • UI / UX Architect
  • Usability Analyst
  • Usability Engineer
  • Usability Specialist
  • User Experience (UX) and Usability Expert
  • User Experience (UX) Designer
  • User Interface (UI) Designer and Developer
  • UX Engineer
  • UX Research Specialist
  • UX Researcher
  • Web Designer


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