COMS W4170: User Interface Design

Fall 2014, Tu/Th 1:10–2:25pm, 702 Hamilton

Prof. Steven Feiner 
feiner [AT] cs [DOT] columbia [DOT] edu

Syllabus and Assignments


COMS W4170 will provide a general introduction to the theory and practice of user interface design. The fundamental question that we will try to answer is, “How can we create high-quality user interfaces?” In our quest, we will take a hard look at what is behind some often glib buzzwords: user-friendly, ergonomic, Web 2.0/3.0, natural user interface, direct manipulation, constraint-based, prototyping, rich internet application, end-user programming, programming by demonstration, visual programming, hypermedia, information visualization, and collaborative software.

Our emphasis will be on the design of 2D graphical user interfaces. We will survey the basic interaction devices available and the techniques that have been developed for (or have given rise to) them, and will study several important paradigms for how these techniques can be woven into a coherent dialogue. This will provide a framework within which we can analyze existing user interfaces and design new ones.

Grading will be based on written assignments (11%, 15%, 15%), a final exam (24%), a final project (30%), and class participation (5%). Although this is not primarily a “programming class,” programming will be required, with emphasis on design and analysis. To get an idea of the kind of work that we will do, you can see representative screenshots and descriptions of the final projects for Fall 2013, Fall 2012, Fall 2010, Fall 2009, Fall 2008, Fall 2007, Fall 2006, and Spring 2006.

The course prerequisite is COMS W313X (Data Structures [and Algorithms]) or equivalent. No previous academic experience with either user interface design or graphics is assumed. However, you are expected to be comfortable with computers and object-oriented programming.


Steve Feiner (feiner [AT] cs [DOT] columbia [DOT] edu) is a Professor of Computer Science and director of the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab. He is interested in most aspects of computer graphics and user interfaces, with special emphasis on interactive 3D user interfaces, augmented reality and virtual environments, wearable and mobile computing, knowledge-based design of graphics and multimedia, computer games, and information visualization (i.e., "fun stuff"). His office is 609 Schapiro CEPSR (212-939-7083), where he will hold office hours Monday and Wednesday 1–2pm (other hours by appointment). If he's not in his office, try his lab across the hall (6LE3 Schapiro CEPSR), where you can find members designing experimental user interfaces for a variety of technologies, ranging from hand-held and head-worn, to table-top and wall-sized. He will usually stay after class for as long as it takes to answer any questions you have.

Teaching Assistants

Ajoy Savio Fernandes (asf2168 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is an MS student in Computer Science. He holds a double degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where he earned a Bachelor of Science from the College of Engineering in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in Psychology and a minor in Technology and Management. Ajoy has done research in HCI and cognitive psychology and now is a thesis student in the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab, where he focuses on virtual and augmented reality. He completed various internships that involve interfaces and design, most notably during his time with Wolfram Research, where he worked on projects involving Mathematica and the Wolfram Cloud. He will hold office hours on Wednesday 2:30–4:30pm in the TA Help Room.

Shloka Kini (srk2169 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is a first-year dual-degree MS student in Computer Science and Journalism. She earned her BA degree in Computer Science from Dartmouth College. Her CS interests include graphics (particularly animation), HCI, AI, digital humanities, educational technology, and work to promote women in computing. Her journalism interests lie in multimedia storytelling, media production, public speaking, and performing arts. She spent last year working at MIT in their Office of Digital Learning on a web-based virtual cell biology lab. She has programmed for many UI devices and platforms, including Android smartphones, Microsoft Kinect, and web. She will hold office hours Monday 6–8pm in the TA Help Room (except for September 15).

Rahul Tewari (rt2520 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is a second-year MS student majoring in Computer Science. He received his BE degree in Computer Science from BITS, Pilani, India. His interests include Object Recognition, Rendering, and Human–Computer Interaction. Over the summer, he worked as a Software Development Engineer intern at He will hold office hours Tuesday 4–6 pm in the TA Help Room.

Manasvi Vohra (mnv2107 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is a second-year MS student majoring in Computer Science. She received her BE degree in Information Technology from Manipal Institute of Technology, India. She has done several technical internships, including a summer internship at Bank of America as a Technology Analyst and Developer. She will hold office hours Thursday 3–5 pm in the  TA Help Room.


Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Fifth Edition. Addison-Wesley, 2010, ISBN-10: 0-321-53735-1. (Recommended. Available at the CU Bookstore or buy it used elsewhere.)

Additional reading material will be announced in the syllabus and in class.


Assignments will be carried out using a variety of tools, ranging from paper, pencils, scissors, and tape, to computer software. The software that we will be using includes CogTool 1.2.2 (the latest stable release of a user interface prototyping tool that uses a predictive human performance model to evaluate the task performance time of designs created with it) and an Interactive Development Environment (IDE) for HTML5 and JavaScript. IDEs that you may wish to consider include: the open-source Aptana Studio 3 (based on Eclipse); the evaluation version of Sublime Text 2 or the beta version of Sublime Text 3; the open-source Adobe Brackets code editor; Microsoft Visual Studio 2013 (available free to Columbia CS students through Dreamspark), or the free-to-everyone web-specific Visual Studio subset Microsoft Visual Studio Express 2013 for Web; and the more Macintosh editor, TextWrangler.

Here are some places to learn about the software with which we'll be designing:

Rules of the Game

You are responsible for all material covered in class and all the assigned reading, including any changes or additions announced in class. If you miss a class, please talk to someone who didn't. (Copies of each class's slides will be linked to the syllabus.)

Course material will be found on the web through Courseworks, and the syllabus and assignments will be linked through

Submission Policy

Each assignment should be submitted electronically through CourseWorks, before the beginning of the class (1:10pm) on the day the assignment is due. If you don't submit a homework assignment on time, the following lateness policy applies.

Lateness Policy

All assignments are due at 1:10pm on the scheduled due date before, not during or after, class. To make the deadlines more manageable, each student will be allowed four “late days” during the semester for which lateness will not be penalized. However, no late days may be applied to the final project, and only one late day may be applied to the first assignment. Otherwise, your four late days may be used as you see fit.

Anything turned in past the start of class until midnight the next day is one day late. Every (partial) day thereafter that an assignment is late, including weekends and holidays, counts as an additional late day.

Absolutely no late work will be accepted beyond that accounted for by your late days. If you're not done on time, please be sure to turn in whatever you have completed on time to receive partial credit. Now, please go back and read this section over again!

Academic Honesty

Please make sure that you've read the Department of Computer Science Policies and Procedures Regarding Academic Honesty. Collaboration on any assignment (except as an approved part of group projects) is, as in all Columbia courses, strictly prohibited. Infractions will be reported to the Department of Computer Science Academic Committee and referred to the Deans.

Syllabus and Assignments