UW News

January 29, 2009

Technical Communication adopts new name: Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering

UW News

As of this month the 20-year-old department of Technical Communication, which began its life 35 years ago as a program in the UW’s College of Engineering, has a new name. Though it will take about six months to fully effect the name change, it is now official: Technical Communication will be known as the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE).

“The field is changing,” said professor and chair Jan Spyridakis. “Given where the computing world is going, our field is much broader than simply writing and editing. The new name reflects that broader focus.”

The choice of a new name involved extensive discussions with faculty, students and alumni. Since announcing the choice, their response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People are jazzed about it. They want it on their degree titles now,” Spyridakis said.

She noted that many alumni of the program had already been accepting jobs in fields such as usability evaluation, game design, product development and software user assistance. Now the degree title will better match their knowledge sets.

“The recent 10-year review says they’re one of the best, if not the best, program of their kind in the country,” said Matthew O’Donnell, dean of the UW’s College of Engineering. “The new name reflects what they really do.”

The UW is at the forefront of an emerging academic discipline, Spyridakis said, with colleagues at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon University, and Northwestern moving in similar directions.

“Computing is moving off of people’s desktops and into mobile computers, into handheld devices—smart phones, iPods, etc.—and becoming embedded in everyday technologies. We’re even computing when we go to banks and use ATMs. Technical communication has moved from creating a user manual that fits all users to the designing and engineering of communication solutions that work effectively for individuals and communities in varying social and cultural environments,” Spyridakis said.

The new name better reflects both departmental research and academic programs, she added. Recently hired faculty members’ research interests include the use of computers in the developing world, the use of technology in doctor-patient relationships, human-computer interaction, and engineering education.

Departmental courses have already for many years been expanding beyond simply writing and editing. And while the writing and editing stream will still be available for students who choose it, the curriculum will be increasingly interdisciplinary. For instance, last fall the department offered a new course on cognitive aspects of communication systems, and this spring it will offer a new course on qualitative evaluation of user experiences, which involves anthropological-style observations of how users behave in their own environments.

The department will continue to offer bachelors, Masters and doctoral degrees in HCDE, and, through UW Educational Outreach, an evening Masters degree and certificate programs in user-centered design and in technical writing and editing.

At the same time, the department is involved in an effort to coordinate campus work on human-computer interaction. Four campus units—HCDE, the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, the Information School, and the Division of Design in the School of Art—have already created an undergraduate concentration in human-computer interaction.

The newly named department is also getting a new home. Offices now housed in three separate buildings will move to a single, newly renovated location in Seig Hall. “We’re excited about the move,” Spyridakis said. “It will give us collocated space, it will give us more visibility, and it will help with collaboration.” The move is scheduled to take place this March.

The HCDE name is now official, and will begin to appear on departmental Web sites and official communications soon. The new name will be printed on degrees within the year.