COMS W4170: User Interface Design

Fall 2013, Tu/Th 1:10–2:25pm, 517 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 computer 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 2012, Fall 2010, Fall 2009, Fall 2008, Fall 2007, Fall 2006, and Spring 2006.

The course prerequisite is COMS W3137 (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

Binyan Chen (bc2521 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is an MS student majoring in Electrical Engineering. He received his BE degree in Automation from Harbin Institute of Technology, China. His interests include user experience and user interface design and development. Last semester, he did research on 3D augmented reality map navigation in the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab. Over the summer, he worked as a software engineer intern at TripAdvisor LLC. He will hold office hours on Wednesday 4–6pm and Thursday 2:30–4:30pm in the TA Help Room.

Ying-Chi (Richard) Meng (ym2394 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is a second-year MS student in Computer Science. He earned his BS degree in Electric Engineering from National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. He has broad interests across CS, but particularly in HCI and web development. Over the summer, he interned at Amazon as a SDET in the Cloud Drive team. He will hold office hours Wednesday 2–4pm in the TA Help Room.

Charlie Robbins (cjr2139 [AT] columbia [DOT] edu) is an MS student in Computer Science in the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab. He holds a B.Eng. from McGill University. Charlie has been a professional software engineer and entrepreneur for over a decade. He has been the Founder and CEO of Nodejitsu Inc., a cloud orchestration and infrastructure company, since 2010. He was previously at Microsoft and several large financial institutions. He will hold office hours Tuesday and Thursday 2:30–4:30pm 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. (Required. 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 (a user interface prototyping tool that uses a predictive human performance model to evaluate designs created with it) and an Interactive Development Environment (IDE) for HTML5 and JavaScript. You can choose one of the following IDEs: the open-source Aptana Studio 3 (based on Eclipse), the evaluation version of Sublime Text 2,  the Adobe Brackets open-source code editor ("still in the oven" for those "who like to live on the edge"), Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 or 2013 Preview (available free to Columbia CS students through Dreamspark), or the free web-specific subsets Microsoft Visual Studio Express 2012 or 2013 Preview for Web.

For those of you who do not have your own computer, or who also wish to use our department's computers to do your work, if there is sufficient demand, we will install the software needed for the course on some of the Windows machines in the CLIC Lab, accessible with an MRL account.

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