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

Last month, one of the stops during my trip to Mexico was with students from the Design, Information and Communication Masters (MADIC) program at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM). The program includes three tracks – Information Design, Interaction Systems, and Communication Strategies – and fosters an integrated approach to address social and technological challenges at local and global levels. Most projects are interdisciplinary where students from each track work collaboratively.

More than 20 students from across all three tracks attended the research seminar to share their theses at varying stages of development. Theses are conducted in pairs mixing students from two different tracks, and focus on a wide range of topics; these are only some of the theses proposals we discussed:

  • visual communication to improve blood donations amongst students
  • cutting-edge technology-driven visualizations to enhance doctor-patient dialogue when dealing with life threatening conditions
  • prevention of visual misinformation during voting processes
  • fostering women inclusion in STEM scientific research through education
  • development of playful pedagogic approaches to improve biology education

The resulting conversation provided a fascinating window into the students’ research journeys, concerns, struggles, and motivations. By the end of the seminar, I was impressed with the variety of projects: not two of them are investigating the same topic! Some projects were more framed – the design of wayfinding system for a national park – while others had a more systemic goal – understanding the impact of families in their children’s choices, but I found myself asking similar questions to each group: Why are interested in the topic? What are you trying to accomplish? Which specific context are you examining? Why did that problem emerge? Who are you trying to help? Like any research project, a Master thesis needs to be very well-defined to avoid being too broad or too narrow, and students being able to arrive to the intended outputs in the given time. Common to all research projects is having:

  • A clear goal: this is the problem to solve or the specific situation to learn more about
  • Audience: the population that will be studied, and any other relevant ones that directly or indirectly have a role to play
  • Intended output: the main thing that will be developed after the research; this can be anything from a method or set of guidelines to a new product or a strategy
  • Intended outcome: the main change that is expected if the output would be implemented
  • Methodological strategy: the way you will find answers and data to support decisions and answer questions
  • Research question: summarizes all the above in one sentence or statement
  • Key contribution: any academic research has a broader purpose, which is to build knowledge of the relevant field of study. The contribution goes beyond the specifics of the thesis, so in what ways will the research advance the field? How can others benefit from the results?

In design-driven thesis, it is expected that the main contribution to be related to the design field or respective practice, as well as findings to inform decisions made throughout the design process. In the seminar, most projects have a clear information design component: to educate, to visually explain, to develop visualization techniques, to define guidelines for effective data visualization, etc. This means that although when a thesis sounds super interesting, if the role of design isn’t clearly articulated, it is necessary to revise the initial proposal to ensure it falls within the remit of design.

To me, it is crucial to encourage students to approach design – and information design – from more than traditional perspectives alone, but it is also essential that students understand the scale at which they will investigate and intervene, as this will help set realistic expectations. Mapping the project components and key connections provides direction and structure to the research, which is even more important when it is collaborative.

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