Purdue University Graduate School
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Exploring Engineering Students’ Interactions with Users and User Information in Human-Centered Design Projects: A Critical Incident Study

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posted on 2024-04-24, 02:11 authored by Elizabeth A SandersElizabeth A Sanders

This study explores how undergraduate engineering students interacted with users, user proxies, and user information during engineering design curricular experiences at a Large Midwestern University. Such practices are essential to human-centered design, a prominent framework within engineering design curriculums. While human-centered design can help students develop more sustainable, responsive, and desirable products for those who use them, engineering design educators need a better understanding of how and why engineering students engage in human-centered design. Such an understanding can enable us to learn how best to support students’ human-centered design learning.

The first phase of this study examined how undergraduate engineering students experienced human-centered design according to Zoltowski et al.’s (2012) Ways of Experiencing Human-Centered Design framework. I developed a survey instrument with open-ended reflections and used an a priori coding approach to identify how a large sample of undergraduate engineering students (n = 135) experienced human-centered design (as opposed to technology-centered or service-oriented design). Over half of the students demonstrated ways of experiencing design that incorporated human-centric design practices (51%), but a critical mass (31%) emphasized technology-centered or service-oriented views in their survey reflections. This finding suggests that human-centered design is more common compared to these other forms of design among students who were enrolled in the engineering design curriculums from which I sampled. This finding is promising in light of other studies showing students’ difficulty with making human-centric engineering considerations.

Next, I interviewed a subset of survey respondents (n = 21) whose reflections evidenced human-centered design experiences. Through interviews, I sought to develop a better understanding of the nature of their user interactions, including what aspects of the curriculum encouraged them to interact with users. I used critical incident technique to identify critical incidents that contributed to students’ deeper understanding of user experiences as they relate to their design project. I identified 81 critical incidents that I grouped into 12 unique user interaction types, which I then grouped into five design activities (Information Gathering, Idea Generation, Feedback, Iteration, and Evaluation). Each of these user interaction types afforded students the opportunity to integrate user information into their design process or prompt a change in their valuation or appreciation of user information during their design process, which ultimately contributes to a more comprehensive design experience. Instructors can use these user interaction types to guide their development of human-centered design experiences that promote students’ deeper understanding of and application of human-centered design.

Finally, I created a narrative depiction of two students’ design journeys by weaving the critical incidents I extracted from their interviews into a story. These two students were selected as they demonstrated variation in user interaction types, with one student’s story focused on immersion in a community context and the other focused on how multiple different user interaction types bolstered their confidence in their design decisions throughout their design journey. Thus, the stories depict how these two students’ design journeys supported their achievement of learning outcomes pertinent to human-centered design learning. Moreover, these stories provide guidance for instructors seeking to promote their students’ personal motivations and design confidence related to design projects in engineering design curriculums that value human-centered considerations.

Taken together, by understanding what leads students to engage with users throughout the design process and the nature of these engagements, the findings from this study position engineering educators to develop curricula and pedagogy that theoretically promote engineering students’ holistic applications of human-centered design.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Engineering Education

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Justin Hess

Additional Committee Member 2

Robin Adams

Additional Committee Member 3

Molly Goldstein

Additional Committee Member 4

Morgan Hynes

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