How I Left India to Study Human-Computer Interaction in Germany
In this article, he shares his story as a UX/UI designer, explains what Human-Computer Interaction is, and talks about life in Weimar, as well as job prospects for designers in Germany.
I grew up in Chandigarh in North India. Technology has always fascinated me, so I chose to pursue a bachelor's in Computer Science. After I graduated, I worked as a UX/UI designer for two years in a multinational company in India.
Studying abroad had always been on my mind as it would give me a bunch of opportunities and international competence. Due to its growing digital market, quality education, and low tuition fees I found Germany an attractive destination.
What Is HCI Exactly and How It Differs From UX/UI Design?
In a nutshell, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is an interdisciplinary field of research that studies the relationships between people and technology. It focuses on areas like research methods, usability, psychology, visual interfaces, etc, while User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design deal with an implementation of the HCI theory in practice.
HCI is heavily based on academic research. It goes beyond the screens and had been studied long before the term “User Experience” was coined. HCI studies focus on theoretical and practical issues within current Computer Science research in interactive system development.
User Interface (UI) is the graphical layout of an application. UI designers decide how exactly the app is going to look like. It includes a whole bunch of solutions regarding the text users read, the buttons they click on, the images, interface animations, and many other items the user interacts with.
UX stands for “user experience”. UX is basically how the user feels when using a product or service. It involves research, ideation, prototyping, testing, and analysis of solutions by cross-functional teams. The user-centered design process helps designers to focus on user needs when solving a problem. The job of UX designers is exactly to make products more user-friendly.
Having gained quite extensive practical experience, I decided to study the theoretical roots of the hot field of UX/UI design and to complete a master’s in HCI.
Why Choose Bauhaus University
After some research, I found only a handful of German universities that provide relevant education in English. I was considering the HCI at Uni Siegen and Usability Engineering at Hochschule Rhein Waal. In the end, though, I opted for the M.Sc program in Human-Computer Interaction at Bauhaus University in Weimar.
It is a public university located in the urban setting of Weimar, a small town in Thuringia. To give you some context, Bauhaus translates to “house of construction”. Bauhaus university has a rich history of starting a revolutionary movement in industrialization, art, and design. The Bauhaus design style has been known for its distinct geometric forms and types.
As with most public universities in Germany, there are no tuition fees at Bauhaus University. The administration fees (around €180—200, or $200-230) are to be paid each semester. Students are eligible for DAAD scholarships for master’s studies. You will find more information here.
Life at Bauhaus University provides a great environment for a student. The university offers well-equipped libraries, media labs, workshops, co-working spaces, and even a radio station run by Bauhaus students for them to learn, grow, and connect. There is also an active international community and support.
HCI Program Structure
The HCI program at Bauhaus University provides quality content to understand the fundamentals of how people and technology are connected. It offers students theoretical and practical state-of-the-art methods and technologies in HCI research methods, cognitive behavior, usability, and interactive system development with a focus on technical aspects.
The research staff is well qualified and friendly. The program attracts students from various parts of the world which highlights the course's international stature.
The HCI program at Bauhaus University is entirely taught in English. It is designed for two years. However, students in Germany can take things easy with extra time to complete their studies, thus avoiding overly fast-paced and potentially stressful lifestyles.
As of 2021, the curriculum has a total of 120 ECTS which is broken into 6 compulsory modules (36 ECTS), 2 research projects (30 ECTS), additional electives (24 ECTS), and a final thesis (30 ECTS).
HCI Program Structure
Students need to choose one subject/course (6 ECTS) per module. Check the table below to see modules and listed courses.
Compulsory Modules at the HCI Program
HCI Concepts, Psychology, and Design Theory offer detailed concepts to understand people and technology better. Visual Interfaces and Computer Vision would require some prior code knowledge and technical skills. Nevertheless, if you have a basic understanding of code, it will be fine, especially considering the support available for students who aren't acquainted enough with the most technical aspects of the studies. The university also supports students who need help with coding.
Research projects. Students are offered a project list during the project fair at the start of the semester. These projects range from academic research to practical implementation. Although some projects can be a lot of work, a lot can be learned as well. For example, I created a sound for an art visualizer, wrote a publication in HCI, and contributed to building a game.
Additional electives. For additional electives, students can take courses, projects, and seminars from most university faculties, eg. Arts & Design or Visual Communication. A lot of them are offered in German but there are also courses in English.
Thesis. Generally, the faculty lists current open topics for final theses. Students are free to choose topics. They can consult the respective supervisors and also build upon their research ideas.
Each department in German universities has its selection criteria. The best source to know these is the website of the chosen program. Generally, the selection criteria are based on the following three factors:
- A bachelor's degree in Computer Science, HCI, or other related degrees with a grade minimum 2.5 GPA. There is no official GPA cutoff. Most of the students have a computer science background with a good GPA (above 2). I also had a bachelor's in computer science with a score of 2.2 GPA. Note that, on the German GPA scale, 1.0 is measured as highest while 4.0 is the lowest.
Students with other related backgrounds are also accepted but with additional requirements. In this situation, some extra credits (subjects) are mandatory to complete before the thesis for the required competencies.
- English language skills. I suggest checking the website for these requirements. For IELTS, the academic test should be opted, not general tests. German language proficiency (A1) would only be necessary before the start of the thesis.
- Motivation letter. Since it's the only document to work upon, take time to make sure it is well structured and answers the main questions concerning early education, work experience, the reason to study HCI, and what makes you the right candidate. Improving the letter through feedback from a peer goes a long way.
The application process goes through Uni-assist. It is a third-party application portal that handles all the applications to most German universities. Apply online, follow the required steps, and send attested copies of the required documents via post.
Apart from the required documents mentioned in the selection criteria, attach anything that makes your case stronger — a transcript of records for your bachelor studies, letters of reference, publications, CV, etc.
After the deadline has passed, there is a waiting period. The time to receive the acceptance decision depends on each individual case. As for me, I applied for the summer semester within the mentioned deadline and got admitted around mid-January. Faculties in German universities usually adhere to the deadlines, yet it might vary depending upon external factors.
Life in Weimar
Weimar is a beautiful and historic place in the middle of Germany, the state of Thuringia. Its approximate population is 65,000. This small walkable town offers Unesco world heritage sites, beautiful parks, cafes, and bars. Locals are friendly, and I have also connected with people from all over the world during my study.
German language. Whether to live or work, learning German always comes in handy. The language center in Weimar offers all levels at a very affordable price. If possible, my advice is to master the basic level even before you come.
Rent. Compared to other cities in Germany, living in Weimar is still affordable. If you live in university housing (Studentenwohnheim), it would cost around €200—400 ($230-460). Living in a private shared flat (WG) can be around the same cost, maybe a bit more. Keep in mind that Weimar is a small town so places in student housing get filled up fast.
If you are respectful and easy-going, you wouldn’t mind sharing your spaces with roommates from all over the world. That was the case for me. At that time, I only had to pay €220 ($250) for rent in the center of the town. Those were the golden days!
Living Expenses. Other expenses like health insurance and groceries may vary in individual cases. International students generally have a blocked account set up as proof of financial funds for the visa. In most cases, a monthly cost of €500—700 ($570-800) would be enough to cover all the extras.
Part-time Work Opportunities
Job scenario in Weimar. Weimar is a small town where people speak German. If you don't know the language, finding a part-time job can take some effort and time. In such cases, a lot of students find mini-jobs in cafes and restaurants as non-customer-facing employees.
Some find opportunities at the university, for example, as academic or student assistants (HIWI). The rest find work at companies in neighboring towns of Erfurt and Jena as working students. Depending on the individual's background and qualifications, it might take time to find the right opportunity. I managed to get a high-paying part-time position at an enterprise.
Job scenario in Germany. A lot of companies in Germany have been hiring remote workers or following the hybrid model since the start of the pandemic. So there might be more possibilities for students who boast some professional experience.
Salaries. Thuringia is an Eastern German state and is known to have lower salaries compared to other states. On average, salaries for students can range from a minimum of €450 ($510) to no official limit. Students earning up to €450 a month on a mini-job don’t have to pay taxes to the state.
Future job prospects. Unlike India, there is no concept of a placement system. In Germany, you may rely on the help of university career centers and consultants. However, it is generally expected that a student applies for jobs and internships on their own. Fortunately, Germany is going through digitalization, which opens up new opportunities for people working in technology.
Tips for Those Applying for a Master’s in Germany
Stick to the deadlines. Use the time to prepare the documents and apply within the deadline. Don't overthink about the criteria but don't underestimate the timeline either.
Plan and research. Planning is critical. Do your research in an organized manner and keep note of everything. You need to understand that it’s not a task but a process. It will be rewarding.
Keep an eye on the spam folder. When I was applying, things went wrong with the Google algorithm, so my admission letter got into spam on Gmail. In any case, keep an eye on the spam folder when you are expecting a reply.
Follow Abhay on Instagram to learn more about UX/UI and work in Germany.