SWE205: Software Usability Analysis and Design

Course Outcomes SWE 205 is part of the Minor in Software Engineering and the BS in Applied Computer Science, concentration in Software Engineering. SWE 205 is also suitable for all students interested in usable computing applications, including students in psychology/human factors, computer science, math, physics, and all engineering fields.

The course outcomes are:
  • Knowledge of quantitative engineering principles for how to build software interfaces that are usable.
  • Understanding that usability is more important than efficiency for almost all modern software projects, and often the primary factor that leads to product success.
  • The ability to critically analyze existing user interfaces and express their positive and negative aspects in engineering terms, both verbally and written.
Prerequisite ENGL101
Professor Contact Information Dr. Kinga Dobolyi
Office: Engineering (Rm. 4440)
Email: kdobolyi@gmu.edu
Phone: 703–993–4198
Office Hours: MTWR 1:45 — 2:45, or by appointment. Please email the professor at least 48 hours in advance when seeking an appointment.
GTA Contact Information
Upsorn Praphamontripong
Email: uprapham@masonlive.gmu.edu
Office: Engineering (Rm. 5321)
Office Hours: Wednesdays 1:30PM— 3:30PM

  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman, 1988 (reprinted 2002), Basic Books, ISBN-10: 0465067107. (required)
  • Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition, Steve Krug, 2005, New Riders Press, ISBN-10: 0321344758 (required)
  • Be sure to look at User Friendly, the comic strip!
Course Content After completing this course, students should understand how to design and evaluate software interfaces that are appropriate for the user. The class will rely on critical thinking to understand what makes a computer UI usable. We will look at many example UIs and discuss what they do right and what they do wrong. Grading will be based on a midterm, a final, several written usability assessments, two presentations, and class participation. SWE 205 will not require programming.
Email Students must use the GMU email system for all correspondence with professor (using the following email subject format: SWE205 — insert your subject — failure to adhere to this policy will result in ignored emails).
Please note that general homework or class questions should NOT be sent to the professor or TAs - in such events, your email will be returned and you will be asked to post your question to the discussion board. In general, the turnaround time for responses to questions will be much quicker on the discussion board.
  • Homework assignments and presentations (20%)
  • Midterm Exam (25%)
  • Class Participation (25%)
  • Final Exam (30%)

Final course grades are calculated as follows:

A+ (>= 98.0%) A (>= 92.0%) A– (>= 90.0%)
B+ (>= 88.0%) B (>= 82.0%) B– (>= 80.0%)
C+ (>= 78.0%) C (>= 72.0%) C– (>= 70.0%)
D (>= 60.0%)
F (< 60.0%)

Class Participation Students must be actively engaged with this class throughout the semester. Students must attend class, participate in classroom discussions, and participate in the online bulletin board (Piazza). This is an easy, but essential part of your grade.

The tentative, subject to change participation scoring will be as follows. Accumulate up to 60 points (slightly over 5.5 per week). Participation is worth 25% of the overall grade, so 60 points is the full 25%, 48 points is 20%, etc. Point assignment will follow the formula:

  • Participation in class
    • 1 point for attending
    • 2 points for joining a discussion
  • Participation on Piazza
    • 3: Usability posting (#badusability, #goodusability, #usability, ...)
    • 1: Comment on one of the above (a comment with content!)
    • 2: Terminology posting
    • 1: Assigned forum checkins
No more than 10 points may be earned in any single week; don't wait until the last minute.
Homework Assignments Homeworks must be submitted to Piazza on the day they are due by midnight, to the appropriate thread. Assignments will be checked immediately after the due date; no late assignments will be accepted.
Class Presentations At the end of the semester, students will present, in groups or individually:
  • An example of an unusable website. Note that we're not necessarily looking for the world's ugliest website, but a demonstration of usability flaws. Some beautiful websites are highly unusable! (Tuesday)
  • An example of how PatriotWeb could be redesigned. This may be a mockup of screenshot(s), or can be implemented (partially of course) in HTML. (Thursday)
Each presentation will be a couple minutes long, depending on how many groups will present. Presenters must explain how the usability concepts apply or don't apply to the particular users. Students will vote on each day for the most unusable and usable website, respectively. Students may not vote for their own group. Each group with the highest score will get fifteen extra points on their final exam. If there are ties amongst winners, the extra points will be divided among the winning groups.
Exams Exams are closed book/notes unless specified otherwise by instructor. Appropriate documentation (as determined by instructor) and requisite permissions are required for make-up exam requests. Picture IDs are required to take all exams.
If you know in advance that you are unable to make an exam for a valid and unavoidable reason (such as a scheduled surgery, etc), you must notify the professor at least one week before the scheduled exam date to make arrangements for a make-up, and bring documentation with you when you take the make-up. If you miss an exam due to a university-accepted excused absence (such as an illness or car accident the day and time of the exam), you must notify your professor within 24 hours of your absence to make arrangements for a makeup, and bring approved documentation with you when you take the make-up exam. Failure to follow either of these policies will result in a zero.
Honor Code All students are expected to abide by the GMU Honor Code. This policy is rigorously enforced. All class-related assignments are considered individual efforts unless explicitly expressed otherwise (in writing). Review the university honor code and present any questions regarding the policies to instructor.
Cheating on any assignment will be prosecuted and result in a notification of the Honor Committee as outlined in the GMU Honor Code. Sharing, collaboration, or looking at any code related to programming assignments that is not your own is considered cheating.
Learning Disabilities Students with a learning disability or other condition (documented with GMU Office of Disability Services) that may impact academic performance should speak with professor ASAP to discuss accommodations.

Tentative Class schedule
Note: Thank you to Dr. Jeff Offutt for the materials he provided for this course, including, but not limited to, the slides below.

Week # Date (start of week) Assignments
Lecture Topics Readings (to be completed prior to lecture)
1 1/19 Assignment 1 (due 1/29): Usability Course intro slides
Users and Principles
Overview of engineering
  • N-1
2 2/3
Assignment 2 (due 2/10): ATM
Mental models
Knowledge and mental models
Examples and discussion
  • N-2
  • N-3
3 2/17
schedule updated for snow days
Assignment 3 (due 2/17): Mental models
Knowing what to do
Error messages
Examples and discussion
  • N-4
  • N-5
4 2/24 Assignment 4 (due 3/3): Evaluate a website
Scientific method
Examples and discussion
  • K-1
5 3/3 Assignment 5 (due 3/24): Evaluate another website
Website design
Scanning and choosing
Defaults and memory
Examples and discussion
  • K-2
  • K-3
  • K-4
7 3/17 Review for midterm
sample midterm
MIDTERM EXAM on Thursday
8 3/24
Assignment 6 (due 4/7): Play an online game
Go over exam
  • K-6
9 3/31 Accidental and essential problems
Navigation and undo
  • N-6
  • K-7
10 4/7 Assignment 7 (due 4/21): redesign CRC website (in-class)
Data Entry
Dialog boxes and toolbars
  • N-7
  • K-8
11 4/14 GUI widgets
Examples and discussion
  • K-10
12 4/21
Prepare slides (?) for class presentations next week Review for final exam
Examples and discussion
14 4/28
Class presentations: Usability Challenge 1: Find the most unusable website
Class presentations: Usability Challenge 2: Redesign PatriotWeb in the most usable way
15 5/5
Tuesday only
Class presentations continued as needed
There will be no office hours the week of 5/4 except by appointment
Final Exam: see the standard time on the George Mason Academic Calendar. The exam will be given in the regular classroom.