Supervising design research at the intersection of technology, science, and society

IDM students worked with Miro to analyze research data from their thesis

With the growing number of cross-disciplinary programs and the active role of design in complex challenges, design theses are increasingly focusing on the intersection of multiple domains, rather than only investigating design related questions. Only in the last year, my graduate students conducted research to investigate very diverse topics, just to name a few::

  • understand the role of participatory approaches in the food system
  • design tools to support patients with spinal cord injuries
  • explore the role of mindfulness for future leaders
  • develop a framework to support designers synthesize qualitative data

For many students, pursuing a thesis is an unknown and sometimes scary experience. Even those who work with design research in professional practice, realize that some things are quite different when doing academic research. As a supervisor, I provide guidance on every aspect of the research journey from how to select appropriate methods and plan the study to how to find credible sources and write up the final thesis. A thesis is a long-time commitment, throughout which students generate a great a lot of information. Being systematic and organized since day one is key. This is why, together with my advisees, we determine an efficient way of working and develop a draft plan with short and long term objectives. Articulating simple tasks –like keeping a record of main points and agreed goals discussed during meetings or creating a shared calendar with milestones– helps students feel less overwhelmed as it gives them structure. While rigor is important for academic research, but flexibility is too; mostly because plans will change and unexpected things will arise. Being empathetic with each student’s journey and mindful to what they are going through is equally key to help them cross the finish line.

Throughout the years, I have identified five specific areas where students struggle with the most and that as thesis supervisors, we should pay particular attention:

  1. Desk research. An important part of academic research is reviewing work, like projects and written papers, that has been done in the past related to the topic under investigation. In cross-disciplinary theses, desk research is a must to learn more about the other non-design domains and get a sense of what questions may be interesting to answer. Also, integrating prior studies into the thesis narrative and using them to support analysis and discussion add credibility to the work.
  2. Connections. Students often spend a great deal of time coding and analyzing research data (Miro has become the preferred tool for this), and even creating mind maps and sophisticated visuals. But, then they struggle to interpret what the color-coded categories mean. Synthesis is the only part of the process where there aren’t shortcuts. You need to take the time to understand the data and make inferences how it connects with the problem you are exploring, and how it connects with your what you learned from desk research. Simply put: What does the data indicate that can be relevant for the thesis? How does it help answer the question? Answers to these questions should be explicitly articulated in the thesis.
  3. Collected data. Using research methods to collect data is the easy part; how to utilize that data in the thesis to draw conclusions is what needs guidance. Similar to the previous point, there is no good in collecting rich data if then it will be ignored. Whatever you find in the data, even if something contradicts your point of view, it should be reported and discussed. Any person reading the results should be able to understand why a finding is important for that specific project and how it was discovered. This is the goal of academic research: report back objectively and be transparent.
  4. Findings. Students commonly purse topics they are passionate about – which is great as this gives them motivation. But this also makes it hard for some of them to report findings with an objective lens. It is common for them to paraphrase participants’ experiences using much stronger words (hate) and absolutes (always, never) than the ones they heard, if they disagree a point of view or an opinion. Research is about being objective: words matter. You should use words and expressions that accurately represent the meaning intended by a participant. Specially being aware of our confirmation bias is important too, otherwise we can conveniently leave out findings that may contradict our initial assumptions.
  5. Design role. What matters most when doing cross-disciplinary design research is articulating the role of design. In other words, how may results contribute to design practice or the design discipline? or what are the implications of the results for design? Connecting the results of a thesis with the broader relevant body of knowledge is also essential in academia research. This means to explain how results could be applied to similar problems or areas beyond the specifics of the thesis.

Doing research for the first time is like anything else new we want to do: we need someone to explain us how to do it and to answer our questions. We may not have all the answers, but our role, as supervisors, is to guide the student along the journey, so they develop a solid foundation and tomorrow they can do research again independently with confidence.

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