The New ABCs of Research: Part 1

The old computing was just about what computers could do; the new computing is also about what users and organizations can do. Successful technologies are those that are close to being in harmony with the needs of users and organizations. These technologies must support relationships and activities that enrich the users’ experiences and fulfill organizational expectations.

University of Maryland’s Ben Shneiderman is well known for, among other things, his pioneering work on human-computer interaction. Anyone interested in the potential insights that come from visualizing data—from treemaps, for example—has Dr. Shneiderman among others to thank.

 However, when he gave his MITRE Innovation Speaker Series Talk this past May, he directed our attention away from interfaces per se to how we might combine applied and basic research to design our next scientific breakthroughs. His newest book, The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, is a guide for junior researchers and a manifesto for senior researchers, academic administrators, business leaders, and funding agencies. —Editor

Author: Nahum Gershon

Basic researchers (and sometimes funding agencies) often opt for the so-called linear model in which basic, or pure, research leads to applied research and product development. In spite of the strong support for this model by WWII-era Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush (As We May Think), Shneiderman believes that the linear model can be misleading—and that it seldom works.

Working on real problems could deliver better theory

Indeed, Shneiderman and others think that research motivated by both considerations—fundamental and applied understanding—leads to higher impact research. In his recent MITRE Innovation Speaker Series talk, he mentioned Pasteur’s repeated success in working on applied problems, such as the spoilage of milk and failures of wine fermentation, to produce basic science breakthroughs about bacterial processes and vaccines. This belief frames Shneiderman’s first principle—The ABC Principle: “Combining applied and basic research produces higher-impact research, compared to doing them separately,” or “Working on real problems will give you better theory.”

In the following diagram, Shneiderman suggests that applied and basic research can be practiced in harmony while embedded in the environment of large efforts of development, production, and operations.


Blending the methods of science, engineering, and design could produce higher-impact research compared to working separately

The science, engineering, and design (SED) principle deals with the interaction between the fields of design, science, and engineering. The scientific method has long reigned as the trusted way to test hypotheses so as to produce new knowledge, that is, doing replicable, controlled experiments with at least two tries.

Enter design thinking! For Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, design thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s need with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity” [Brown, Tim (2008). “Design Thinking”. In: Harvard Business Review 86(6), pp. 84–92].

Given his interests, Shneiderman augments Brown’s concept, saying that design thinking is “a research method which encourages practitioners to reformulate goals, question requirements, empathize with users, consider divergent solutions, and validate designs with real-world interventions. Design thinking promotes playful exploration and recognizes the profound influence that diverse contexts have on preferred solutions” (see more at Can design thinking challenge the scientific method?).

In contrast to science and engineering, “designers gather requirements and then seek open-ended possibilities through iterative social processes that include diverse stakeholders, so as to create novel, often unexpected, outcomes. In the past, science was often associated with research, while engineering and design were associated with practice. However, there are now a vast number of science ‘practitioners’ and growing communities of engineering and design ‘researchers’” (The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations)

Following these thoughts, Shneiderman’s SED principle holds that researchers should blend the methods of science, engineering, and design to enable higher-impact research compared to working separately.

Design thinking challenges assumptions

We should teach design thinking, Shneiderman argues. Organizations like IDEO, Stanford D school, Rhode Island School of Design, and others see design as a common way of thinking. Design thinking first starts by challenging the assumptions, challenging the goals, challenging the requirements, and trying to think broadly about those in a divergent thinking stage where you think differently, or “think different”, as Steve Jobs used to say. Then, you converge on what the goals and metrics are (if there are any good ones) and what the requirements are. You diverge again about how to do it and then converge again to get it done. The UK Design Council designed this approach, calling it the double diamond, and one useful way to probe the concept is by revisiting the invention of the wheel. The wheel’s inventors were simultaneously applied and basic researchers, acting as scientists, engineers, and designers. These inventors brought together diverse knowledge and experiences. Shneiderman would like to believe that they were doing applied and basic research that required testing primitive physics theories, making crude mechanical engineering decisions, and applying rough product design principles.

Part 2 of this account of Dr. Shneiderman’s talk will probe the key to human-centered design: People! And, how to build teams with the right ones.

Are design thinking and research compatible concepts in your organization?

How do you build effective research teams?


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