I’m working on a research design tool for my own use.
I often feel overwhelmed and almost lost when planning new research: there is so much I want to do, and I feel I am all over the place.
Over the years, I have drawn research maps, with colored fields and arrows between them in order to have an overview. But they have become overwhelming, too. I understand them when I create them, but when I revisit them later, they don’t do the trick for me: I need to redo the mapping, using paper prototyping.
Last winter (2019/2020) I tried a more methodical approach – I sorted these fields and arrows into categories, and made cards with different colors, for bits like “research question”, “aim”, “method”, “application area”, “computational approach” and so on.
A few days ago I pulled my cards out, in order to get a grip on an article I am working on. I wanted to make sure I didn’t get lost in it. I need to ensure that I say what I wanted to say, don't forget any important components, and also explain to the reader why, how and what. I found that many of my cards could fit in several categories, and that some where missing.
I also saw that some things - because they are my recurring approaches, methods, and things I want to convey, forms a kind of palette - resources I can draw upon. Yet, if I would be able to conceptualize all the resources at the same time, things would be better! I need crutches for my forgetful brain that seems to hold so little at the time. So crutches I make. For now I’m doing it for my own use only, to map out my palette, and as a help when I plan new research and publications.
I have to say though, that in academia, there are plenty of occasions where we need to summarize our research fields. We write about our approaches, past results and future plans. We put a lot of work into this, because we have to, its part of the system. However, while these reports and applications are good ways to summarize and get overview, they are always following a format of being done for someone else, and sometimes shoehorned for some research funding call.
The research maps I have drawn over the years, to get a sense that I am the one holding the rudder of my own ship, have been absolutely crucial to me, so that I have kept the focus of what I believe is most important and meaningful rather than to follow notions of “low hanging fruit” or whatever is trendy to do at the moment.
Yet, they are getting too complex in density for me to understand myself quickly - just look at this, its a map i drew in September 2018.
That one, actually did help me, I had it in my note book. A year later, in August 2019, I took stock. I left the bits I had actually worked on white. It felt good, as if I was in control.
When I revisited this map a few months later, in November 2019, it confused me. Clarity was lost. Perhaps some categorization would help. An attempt in this regard is below.
To test out this approach, I cut out pieces of colored card stock that I could move around my desk, like this:
It felt good at the time (2020-11-15, and it still feels good), and I made lots of cards that I could lay out on my desk. I put them in a box, to pull out for future use. An interesting thing I found was that I had many cards about what realized prototypes I wanted to make (and the ideas and aims motivating them), but not so many that would lead from idea to realization. Ahah! I thought, this will be useful and then workload, corona and life happened, (as well as some obsessive nightly painting) and the cards stayed in their box.
I took them out again a few days ago (May 15 2020), and found that some cards could fit in multiple categories, that some categories should be merged, and that some additional routine info could be useful to record for different projects.
Right now, I have devised colors for different categories needed to plan a research project, and one for how to report it in a paper. I make symbols which are quick and easy to draw, and have boiled it down to four colors. This way, the tool could be used in collaboration: using a whiteboard with the four custom markers - black, blue, red and green.
The research design tool i am making holds an expressive palette of my own approaches to research, but I do also reflect on how it might be useful for other researchers with their own palette. I also think about ways that this tool could serve as a guide for students who are new to research… but that is a potential future thing. Now, I need to apply it to the papers and articles I am working on to see if it is actually useful or not. If it is, then maybe I will develop it further.
For rapid prototyping of my tool I have used spreadsheets and a little database to try out how it works, but in order for it to be useful for myself, I need the physical aspect – to be able to touch and move around pieces on my desk. Especially, because in this way it is easier to move bits around without any constraints, to add and subtract: not being restricted by a structure but helped by it. I find when I need to design, I do it better with analog means, but when I document and structure, I want my machines.
What I have done now is to define categories, and identified which ones recur: these will become a card deck. For each paper/project there is a formula of items that are mandatory. I have taped some envelopes together to form a notebook. The first envelope will hold a template index card for what needs to be on a paper-project plan. The second envelope will hold a card deck forming the palette of research tools/means of expression. The third envelope will hold cards to write on and stickers to use when planning and working on a research project/paper. The rest of the envelopes will hold actual cards for the projects/papers I’m working on. The envelopes can hold different notes relating to the questions investigated, and I can glue ephemera onto the actual envelopes to decorate them with information.
I'm hoping that this will help me to
- remember ideas I have had, and want to realize
- remember my research history, things I have done over the years that might be useful in future work,
- have a quick way to “prototype” a paper, for example making sure that I define an answerable research question, that I have access to using the methods that can answer it, and that the work would be useful for someone else.- remember what I have on my ‘palette’ as a researcher, and be able to add tangible symbols of new techniques to the palette.