Course Syllabus


Better design may arise from better processes…
that may arise from better models of systems, goals, interaction, and collaboration…
that may arise from better understanding of systems and cybernetics in relation to design.

As our worldʼs complexities and hazards increase, design methods must keep up if designers are to succeed in meeting human needs. Cybernetics provides a framework for modeling systems, goals, interaction, and collaboration. In addition to the construction of interactive experiences, today's design practice requires collaborating on the modeling of systems and goals. The design of complex systems, in particular, benefits from the application of cybernetic frameworks. A more rigorous understanding of modeling, systems, goals, interaction, and collaboration leads to better outcomes and more efficient and effective design processes.

This course introduces students to the discipline of cybernetics, the science of systems that achieve their goals through feedback and conversation. In readings, presentations, discussions, and assignments, the course focuses on applying cybernetic frameworks to the design of interactive systems.

Systems may be physical, virtual, social, or some combination; however, they are always grounded in a social context. Examples include software applications and web services, instrumented environments for learning, business, and government, and conversational systems for work or play.

Students will learn fundamental principles of cybernetics but also expand their concept of design, find the connection between design methods and systems thinking, and gain a rich perspective for critiquing design activities and outcomes.


The design professions have long focused on the form of objects. But with the development of complex military systems during World War II and complex business systems thereafter, a focus on the relation among elements in a system began to emerge. This “systems thinking” approach to design held the attention of the design professions from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s. Recently, the growth of the Web and networked digital communications has sparked a renewed interest in systems thinking within the design professions. The number of “moving parts” as well as the number of roles involved in most commercial software development projects (designers, researchers, implementors, testers, managers, marketers) requires a systems approach for success. In turn, "systems thinking" — parallel to but different from the arc of cybernetics — can benefit from the theoretical framework that cybernetics provides.

In the 1940s cybernetics began as a formal approach to the description of any physical system in a framework comprising boundaries, information flows, and goals. Around 1960 an explicit transition occurred as the discipline shifted from examining systems that are physical and objective to those that are psychological and linguistic, while still applying the same framework. As a result, cybernetics has developed the means to model, and to apply metrics to, the otherwise subjective human activities of conversation and collaboration. By offering enhancements to prior models of task analysis, workflow, and interaction design, cybernetics extends the toolset for designing successful human-focused systems.

This course has similar goals to the practice called “design thinking”, however, here there is a requirement for rigor and specificity. Because of this, cybernetic models help designers to productively converge on pragmatic goals as well as collaborative paths for achieving them. Because of the specificity of the models, outcomes of applying cybernetic models to design include new capacity to steer the design process with productive focus on where and how designs may be evolved.

The content of this course evolved from a collaboration between Paul Pangaro and Hugh Dubberly who jointly taught in Terry Winograd's program in HCI at Stanford University from 2002 through 2007.

Course Objectives

  1. To give students an understanding of the value of "thinking in systems" and an experience of the power of good models.
  2. To enable students to apply the core concepts and models of cybernetics to interaction design, for the benefit of their understanding, their confidence, and their deliverables.
  3. To exercise students in the tasks of representing user intentions and actions, and modeling system components and interactions, in a coherent, holistic manner.
  4. To introduce students to a language for assessing the quality of a design in terms of its effectiveness and efficiency in helping users achieve their goals.
  5. To help students improve their design processes and focus more effectively on fulfilling human needs.

Course Requirements

There are no prerequisites to taking the course. The course has sufficient breadth and flexibility for a range of interests and backgrounds to participate actively and effectively.

The structure of the course is based on 5 core models. For each class, students will read selected materials in advance, discuss the core model from those readings in class, and apply the model via assignments due in the following class. Students will present their assignments and interact with the class to evaluate a modelʼs scope and limitations. Through shared reflection on the purposes and limitations of representations, students develop skills for understanding and managing complex design problems, whether human-to-human, human-to-machine, or human- through-machine-to-human.

To complete the assignments each student selects a system judged to benefit from the application of models from the course, whether to better understand why the design works, how it fails, or how it can be improved. Guidelines for the possible forms and appropriate complexity expected of the assignments will be provided. Systems may be from any domain that is encompassed by the scope of “interaction design”, including:

  • a software application or application class — (highly mixed list) mobile app, wearable device/app, sensor network, contextual personalization, instant messaging, blog or micro-blog, social networking extensions, media player or editor, book reader, browser, email client, search interface, PIM or PDA or tablet, word processor, spreadsheet, courseware, content management systems, developer IDE, etc..
  • a service context—retail store, consulting, advertising or marketing agency relationship, customer support line, etc.
  • a human-to-human interaction scenario—job interview, family discussion, quarrel among friends, disagreement about a moral issue, etc.

The final assignment requires the selection of a specific commercial system and a reasoned critique in terms of the concepts and models presented in the course. In addition to a written essay with accompanying models, each student will prepare and deliver a short presentation to an outside audience in the final class.


Grades will be based on the following categories:

Class Participation – 40%

  • Engagement and evolving facility with the concepts and models

First 4 Assignments – 40%

  • Understanding of the nature of models and modeling
  • Facility with applying core models to systems under scrutiny
  • Application of models to problems of interaction design and management of design processes

Final Assignment – 20%

  • All of the above, plus
  • Make a clear and well-argued critique
  • Condense complex ideas into a clear narrative
  • Present in front of live audience with clarity and confidence

Course Summary:

Date Details