It is easy to make things hard.
It is hard to make things easy.
—A. Chapanis, 1982
Syllabus Schedule My home page
December 2018

SWE 205 Software Usability Analysis and Design
Course Syllabus — Spring 2018

Professor:Jeff Offutt
Office:4430 Engineering Building
Class Hours:Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30-11:45, Peterson 1105 (opening January 2018)
Prerequisite:ENGL 101 or ENGL 100
Office Hours: Wednesdays 3:30-5:00 or by appointment
GTA:Animesh Jain,, office hours Thursdays 1:30—3:30, EB 4456
UTA:Pamela Phan,

SWE 205 is part of the BS in Applied Computer Science, concentration in Software Engineering, and the Minor 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.


Principles of user interface design. Concepts for objectively and quantitatively assessing the usability of software user interfaces. Outcomes include knowledge of quantitative engineering principles for designing usable software interfaces and an understanding that usability is more important than efficiency for almost all modern software projects, and often the primary factor that leads to product success. Major topics include cognitive models for human perceptions and needs, which are used as a basis for analytical and critical thinking about user interfaces; specific engineering principles for designing usable menus, forms, command languages, web sites, graphical user interfaces and web-based user interfaces. Assessments will include written analytical evaluations of existing user interfaces, exams, and HTML-based design projects.

  1. Knowledge of quantitative engineering principles for how to build software interfaces that are usable.
  2. Understanding that usability is more important than efficiency for almost all modern software projects, and often the primary factor that leads to product success.
  3. The ability to critically analyze existing user interfaces and express their positive and negative aspects in engineering terms, both verbally and written.

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, and class participation. SWE 205 will not require programming.

I expect you to read the relevant material before lecture. The lectures may not cover everything in the readings and will often include material not found in the readings. The schedule for the readings are on the schedule web page. Most chapters are fairly short and easy to read.

All students will be enrolled in the discussion forum for SWE 205 on Piazza. We will use the discussion board throughout the semester.

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 meetings
    • 1 point for attending (must be present at the beginning of class)
    • 1 point for completing an in-class assignment
    • 2 points for presenting or 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 on Piazza in any single week. That is, don’t wait until the last week.

We will have around 10 assignments. Some will be usability evaluations of software interfaces and require a short written report, and some will require examples to be brought into class. You should submit homework on paper and in class if possible. If you miss class, you may submit via email (no zip files please). Homeworks must be submitted before class on the day they are due to be counted as on time.

You are allowed to work on the assignments collaboratively using one of two models:
  1. Collaborate while analyzing and solving the problem, then develop independent submissions. In this model, each person will turn in a separate document. The submissions must include a section that lists everybody you worked with and what each person contributed in general terms. You can work with as many classmates as you like with this model, but only other students in SWE 205 this semester.
  2. Collaborate from start to finish with at most two other students in SWE 205. You must submit one solution and each person will get the same grade.
Note: You are NOT ALLOWED to include “guest names.” Every person listed as a collaborator must contribute. If someone is listed as a collaborator but did not contribute, all will be given a zero on the assignment and reported to the university honor committee.

There will be a midterm and a final exam, both closed-book in class. The final will not be cumulative.

We will often have in-class exercises, announced during class. Some will involve writing and some will involve modest problem solving. Some will be based on the day’s lecture and some will be based on a previous class meeting. These will graded on a “done / not done” basis and count towards participation.

Unless arrangements are worked out in advance, missed tests cannot be made up, and 10% per week will be deducted for late assignment submissions. If you submit something late by posting online, you must inform me via email. If you are going to be forced to miss class on the day something is due, let me know ahead of time by email or in writing. Per GMU policy, all assignments and projects must be submitted before the beginning of the GMU reading period.

Lectures in this class will be in a computer-free learning zone. Computers, whether in the form of laptops, tablets, or mobile phone/pocket-computers, may not be used while I am lecturing. I have a detailed explanation why, but here is the short summary: Computers interfere with your classmate’s ability to concentrate on the educational material, my concentration, and your learning. Multitasking is a myth promulgated by inefficient people. Taking notes by hand is much more effective than typing notes on a computer. If you have to check your email or text messages, or take a phone call, please sit near the door so you can unobtrusively step out. I will ask you to close your computers, and if that doesn’t work, will ask you to leave the classroom. (Computers may be used during breaks, during example and discussion days, and other times when I stop lecturing for discussion or examples.)

Office hours are times that I commit to being in my office, door open, first come, first served. You do not need an appointment, and no appointments are made. If you cannot make my office hours, then we can try to set up an appointment. Please note that I am seldom available after 5:00 pm. I will inform you in class or on the discussion board if I have to miss office hours.

I always accept linked in requests from current and former students—we clearly have a professional relationship. I tweet random thoughts irregularly about software engineering @jeffoffutt. I do not initiate facebook requests from students, but usually accept them.

As with all GMU courses, SWE 205 is governed by the GMU Honor Code. In this course, all assignments, exams, and project submissions carry with them an implicit statement that it is the sole work of the author, unless joint work is explicitly authorized. Help may be obtained from the instructor or other students to understand the description of the problem and any technology, but the solution, particularly the design portion, must be the student’s own work. If joint work is authorized, all contributing students must be listed on the submission. Any deviation from this is considered an Honor Code violation, and as a minimum, will result in failure of the submission and as a maximum, failure of the class.

If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at 993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through the DRC.

Writing Center: A114 Robinson Hall; (703) 993-1200;
University Libraries “Ask a Librarian”
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): (703) 993-2380;

I occasionally send important announcements to your Mason email account, so it is imperative that you read it regularly. Email should have a subject that starts with “swe 205” if not, I may not notice it. General class questions should be posted on the discussion board, not sent through email.

The grading formula will be (approximately): 20% the assignments, 25% class participation, 25% the midterm, and 30% the final.