An Engineering Education

UW’s sought-after Human Centered Design & Engineering programs have roots in the earliest days of new learning.

The personal computer had just recently been introduced when Judith Ramey arrived at the University of Washington.

It was 1983. The tech industry was reinventing design. Customers didn’t just pay for the new PCs, they were also the end users who used computers every day. Demand was high for Ramey’s expertise in computer documentation and usability testing, so she decided to help launch short courses in technical communication. To do this, she partnered with the Educational Outreach unit at the University of Washington — now UW Continuum College.

“Offering those short courses built our reputation … because we were engaged in educating people to practice a profession,” said Ramey, now an emeritus professor of the UW Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. “That kind of outreach was enormously important.”

When budgets were slashed in the 1980s, the UW technical communication program took a hit. It was removed from its academic home in the College of Engineering, but the short courses lived on — and thrived. The program re-emerged as its own Department of Technical Communication in 1991, built in part on the success of its short courses.

Master’s Degrees: A Matter of Partnering

Within the decade, Ramey said, the “emergency of the web” drove market demand for a master’s program. Professionals didn’t want to quit work for school, but, to keep up, they needed advanced skills, like technical writing and design. A lack of state funding for more instructors made it the right time to pivot.

“It was a matter of partnering,” Ramey said. “The idea for offering degree programs at night originated with continuing education,” shorthand for Continuum College.

The master’s in technical communication was a breakthrough on two fronts. First, it welcomed professionals to earn their degree part time or in the evenings. And, from its very first year, it paid for itself with tuition and fees — not state funds.

The program’s popularity and revenue brought enthusiastic support from university administrators. And, with funding not tied to state rules, instructors could move fast to shape the curriculum for the changing industry.

The faculty, Ramey said, had “more authority, more power over our own future — our own direction — than we perhaps

You can't snow people about quality, certainly not in Seattle.

 — Judith Ramey, Professor Emeritus, Human Centered Design & Engineering, UW

had before.” They aligned the curriculum to make sure education was consistent across the day and evening master’s programs, but they knew not all students could commit to the full two years.

The next move: Certificates.

So Much More for Students

As the department evolved into what’s now HCDE, it launched a series of professional certificates. The noncredit courses in technical writing and editing, global communication, and the current Certificate in User-Centered Design taught a subset of the regular master’s degree curriculum. These certificates offered a flexible option for full-time professionals seeking theory, tools, techniques — and career-advancing credentials.

“It gave them a kind of power that they, with all their native intelligence, hadn’t yet been able to really bring to bear,” Ramey said. “So many of them advanced in their careers. These are people who are committed to improving the world for their users.”

Taught by UW professors, as well as top CEOs and tech leaders from around the region, the certificates quickly built a reputation for excellence. Surging enrollment mirrored the growing tech industry, attracting professionals from upstart tech companies, as well as from established leaders like Microsoft and Boeing.

“You can't snow people about quality, certainly not in Seattle,” Ramey said. “We were really very earnest about maintaining the quality of the program, very nervous about sustainability and very reliant on the Continuum College back-office operations to make it work.”

The department replicated its success: The certificate programs were self-sustaining. 

“This was a way for us to do so much more for our students, and at the same time, advance our standing in the University,” Ramey said. “Everybody was happy about that.”

Mastering Complexity

From the short courses of the 1980s through today’s degree and certificate offerings, Ramey credits program managers, now part of UW Continuum College, for understanding the academic department’s potential and guiding the department through every stage of growth.

The department’s success has inspired dozens to follow, including the leading Master of Human-Computer Interaction + Design — an innovative collaboration by the Departments of Human Centered Design & Engineering and Computer Science & Engineering along with the Division of Design in the School of Art + Art History + Design and the Information School.

As collaborations grow, so does complexity. With every course, academic departments focus on sharing expertise with learners, and UW Continuum College manages the rest: budgeting, enrollment projections, marketing, student finances and more.

“Academics tend to be somewhat conservative in their understanding of how to deliver education, and it can be scary to get into that kind of startup mentality,” Ramey said. “Within Continuum College, they have people who specialized in various disciplines. They can offer that resource of drawing on people who have knowledge of what works.”