Computer Science Education Needs to Teach Us About Humans

Computer Science education at universities in North America is typically a mix of Computers (learning programming language concepts, formal languages and proofs, data structures and algorithms, electronic architecture, etc.) and Math (algebra and calculus, linear algebra, statistics, number theory) but I think this education misses entire broad strokes of the elements involved in building software: making something to augment a human’s abilities.

Having a solid base in the Computer bits of Computer Science is essential as it enables the How of what a software developer makes. But it doesn’t shine any light on the Why a software developer is making something. Without knowing that, we’re often left shooting in the dark, hoping what we make is good for a person.

I’m proposing the education should focus less on mathematics and instead focus more on Human factors, specifically (but not limited to) Psychology and Physiology, the study of the human mind and the human body, respectively, and how the two parts interact to form the human experience.

By understanding the human body, we learn of its capabilities, and just as importantly, of its limitations. We learn about the ergonomics of our limbs, feet and hands, all of which inform the physical representations of how software should be made. We learn about a human’s capacity for sensing information, specifically from the eyes (like our ability to read, understand and parse graphical information like size, shape, and colour) and the hands (like our sophisticated dexterity and sense of tactility, texture, and temperature). Instead of pictures under glass, we’d be more informed to interact in more information rich ways.

By understanding the human mind, we learn how humans deal with the information received and transmitted from the body. We learn about how people understand (or don’t understand) the things we’re trying to show them on screen. We learn how people model information and try to represent our software in their minds. We learn that people represent some things symbolical and other things spatially, and we learn why that difference is important to building useful software.

We also learn how people themselves learn, how children are capable of certain cognitive tasks at certain ages, and how they differ, cognitively, from adults. This allows us to better tailor our software for our audience.

Psychology does even better than teaching us how a person works inside because it also gives us the beginnings of how people work amongst themselves, and how people share their mental models with each other. Since humans are inherently social beings, we should be taking advantage of these details when we build software.

All of these details are crucial for building software to be used by people, and nearly all of them are ignored by the current mandatory parts of Computer Science curriculum. We learn lots about the mechanics of software itself, but nothing about what we’re making. It’s like learning everything about architecture without ever having once lived inside a building. We build software with our eyes closed, guessing as to what might be useful for another person when there are libraries full of information telling us exactly what we need to know.

We need to stop guessing and we need to learn about who we’re building for.

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