syllabus: interaction design studio, 2023

DES 304 | School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin | Professor Cathryn Ploehn, MDes

Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
6 min readAug 23, 2023

Interaction designers bring the possibility of behavior into being through the act of design. To that end, this studio will invite students to take a designer’s posture — confident and curious in the act of research and making. With this posture in mind, the studio will take students through moves made in any interaction design process: researching interactions in the world, making and testing designs to serve or provoke interaction, communicating their research and design process, and receiving / providing thoughtful critique.

This course also aims to consider and address blockages in taking a designerly stance: fear in making, and an adversarial (versus collaborative) spirit. Thus, a positive atmosphere is key, along with a focus on process and thoughtfulness (instead of shiny deliverables).

Enjoyed the class? More resources and readings can be found here.

inquiries into everyday life

“[T]he various fields of design can play in the personal, intimate, hidden moments of living. Design-global has the greatest potential to reveal, nudge, and make possible the aesthetic of daily living.”

— Stephen Neely [3]

In this course, we’ll explore the core competencies of an interaction designer — research, creation, communication, and critique — through the lens of everyday life. The context of everyday life is the all-encompassing undercurrent of the human experience, enabling us to deeply explore fundamental aspects of design processes [1, 2]. For interaction designers, this process is non-linear, ever emergent, and driven by the senses and felt experience. In other words, as lecturer and design writer Claudia Marina asserts:

By experimenting with the idea of design being in common with cooking — as an everyday practice — we can see how the habitual practice of cooking reveals certain aspects of the design process previously unexplored, such as the role of sensing and contingency in design, or how an individual develops a non-linear process of ideation beyond industry-driven models of “design thinking.” This kind of practice allows the designer, who is also the user, to build on their material knowledge and relationship to the world in a distinct way. [1]

Every day, through waking up and making breakfast, going through our morning routine, we are bringing designs (our imagined routines, for example) — often ephemeral — into being. We rely on our senses, models of the word, and enact these routines non-linearly, or as we go. A first, powerful step as a designer is articulating that relationship — forging a way to notice and talk about interactions.

The nature of the inquiry

You will choose an activity you do everyday to look into. It must meet the following requirements:

  • Be a multistep act / process you (actually) perform everyday
  • Must be willing to blog on medium (available to internet eyeballs) about this process, down to the who / what / when / where / why
  • Must be willing to design / prototype within and around this activity (it cannot be a rigid process)
  • Must be able to write about / perform the activity for the entirety of the class
  • Would be advisable to avoid choosing a religious ritual or other activities you don’t want critique about

Examples include: making coffee, exercise (you must actually do it everyday tho), eating breakfast, skincare routines, taking a walk, doing chores, reading, etc. Don’t be afraid to choose the same activity as another person; you must simply engage with your own unique design process.

We will conduct a series of experimental design processes, moving through the competencies of an interaction designer (research, create, communication, critique). Using these tools, we’ll explore the nature of your activity, including:

  • How does it feel?
  • What does it mean?
  • How can we design for interactions in the context of this activity?

All of your work will be documented in a process blog on (this website). An example blog can be found here.

Please note: It doesn’t matter exactly what you design, but how thoughtful and well documented your design process is. Indeed, experiment and explore!!

We’ll be moving through the following phases.

Phase i: observe

How can we observe and form understandings of the world?

Lectures and slides:

In this phase, we will observe an activity from our everyday lives, building and communicating our understanding of it.

Research: Choose and research an activity you do every day, taking photos and notes along the way. Focus on time, space, and felt experience, hitting the following points:

  • What does the activity mean to you?
  • What are the steps involved in the activity?
  • How do you feel at each step? Tense, lightweight, low energy, high energy
  • Take pictures. If possible, film yourself. Use other documentation methods if necessary.

Some resources:

  • Making and Unmaking the Ephemeral Object: Design, Consumption, and the Importance of Everyday Life in Understanding Design beyond the Studio, by Claudia Marina. Claudia explains and demonstrates her process of making flan well, and is a good example for your process blogs. Also, this piece deeply answers what we get when we look at the everyday through an interaction design lens.
  • Divided by Design: Findings from the American South. A great example of design research: interviews from across demographics, synthesized into key problems and insights from those communities, constructing understanding about what it would mean to design for those communities (and their needs). (link)

Create: Synthesize your notes into a journey map, with consideration for experiential and temporal attributes. Check out the medium post or lecture slides (below) for guidance. Hit the following points:

  • Write down the step by step flow of your activity (even if non-linear).
  • Identify what’s going on “in-between”
  • Identify areas of strong “yearning toward,” etc.

Communicate: Present your research and journey map, focusing on what you did and why.

Critique: Receive and respond to feedback: what is an interesting place for a “nudge” in this activity? Read “Why is so much of design school a waste of time?

Phase ii: expand / contract

How can we create or deny possibilities for interaction through design?

Lectures and slides:

“Our desire to stay in harmony is so profound that we are, as a result, nudgable, inclined to go with the flow, lest we fall out of sync with our worlds.” [3]

In this phase, we will use the lessons from phase i to design a small nudge to provoke the possible interactions in our everyday activity.

research: Ideate interesting ways to “nudge” your activity though design. Must be simple, focusing on space, objects, timing, adding / deleting steps.

Some resources:

  • The Tyranny of Convenience by Tim Wu. Some food for thought when aiming to optimize your everyday life.
  • “He’s Still Neutral,” podcast from 99% Invisible telling the story of how a Buddha placed in a trash-filled Oakland median transformed the neighborhood.
  • Taylor, Damon. “After a Broken Leg: Jurgen Bey’s Do Add Chair and the Everyday Life of Performative Things.” Design and Culture 5.3 (2013): 357–374.

create: Expand on and test one “nudge,” attempting to bring the nudge to life and documenting the results through images, text, etc. You’ll need to:

  • Create a (sketchy) concept image / description. Sketch the nudge. Describe: imagined context, a description of what it is, how it works, and how people might interact and respond to it. Describe what you want to test with the nudge
  • “Build” concept, if needed (a low-fi, scrappy version is encouraged)
  • Test and document: What did the nudge teach you? About interaction, and your hypothesis?

Some resources:

communicate : Present your ideation process, nudge, and tests, focusing on what you did and why. Components you’ll need are:

critique: Receive and respond to feedback: what does the nudge (and the test results) reveal about the activity?

Phase iii: transform

How can our designs open up possibility for new worlds?

Lectures and slides:

In this phase, we will use the lessons from phases i and ii, researching the meaning of our activity to create a speculative design.

research: Listen to this podcast about science fiction as tech criticism.

Think of some keywords that capture the essence of your activity’s meaning. Then, we’ll ideate speculative version of your activity using your keywords.

create: Choosing one idea, create a (3-panel) storyboard that brings the speculative design to life.

communicate: Present your research, ideation, and storyboard, focusing on what you did and why.

critique: Receive and respond to feedback: based on this speculation, how can we approach designing for the activity?


  1. Claudia Marina (2020): Making and Unmaking the Ephemeral Object: Design, Consumption, and the Importance of Everyday Life in Understanding Design beyond the Studio, Design and Culture, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2020.1796373
  2. Kossoff, Gideon. (2015). Holism and the reconstitution of everyday life: a framework for transition to a sustainable society. Design Philosophy Papers. 13. 25–38. 10.1080/14487136.2015.1085698.
  3. Neely, Stephen. “SOMA LITERATE DESIGN Recentering the Interstitiality of Experience.” (2019)



Cathryn Ploehn, MDes

Data viz, computational design, interaction design / Professor at UT Austin / MDes Carnegie Mellon