Helping Designers Navigate Science

Alëna's superb and brave diagram above is kind of fascinating... I think this warrants a full discussion in the future...

For those of you who haven’t met Alëna, or followed her comments within the blog, I’d just like to point out that she is bloody superb. On her blog there is an excellent overview of “how to read science papers” that is a superb resource. For the most part, I’m probably going to repeat what Alëna already laid out beautifully, but thought I should put it in my own words and lock it in.

How to read a science paper

S. Kivsha has written an excellent paper about reading papers, a jolly good internal pun if there ever was one, that has a great overview on how to scan, focus and most importantly reflect on science papers. His goal is to increase efficiency, making it possible for readers to skip papers that are irrelevant or inaccurate, and increase the opportunity for personal insight, by encouraging reflection on specific information.

The paper is a good one page read, but the following paragraph sums up his thesis the best:

The key idea is that you should read the paper in up to three passes, instead of starting at the beginning and plowing your way to the end. Each pass accomplishes specific goals and builds upon the previous pass: The first pass gives you a general idea about the paper. The second pass lets you grasp the paper’s content, but not its details. The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.

Concept harvesting

I used to do a workshop with my second year ID students, which I think I might dust off and try again. I challenged them to look at their pages of ideation, timed exactly when they were up to their neck in ideas and had forgotten what they were trying to achieve in the beginning. They would review their ideas for the deep concepts, identifying what the ideas were really exploring. We would then compare these back to the research and it would become clear which projects had lost their way, and needed to revisit their research, or which projects had really used their research and were heading in the right direction.

Alëna highlights in her review of reading science papers, a kind of concept harvesting in the research phase which is immensely valuable;

A very well formulated summary of the entire scientific paper can be found in an abstract along with goals of the project, methods of achieving them, and the main results. I always skim through an abstract before delving into the paper – it saves a lot of time and reveals many keywords and terminology that I google before really diving into the meat of the study (words overlaid in pink are candidates for googling).

Alëna, I hope you don't mind me copying and pasting all your content... yikes.

The deep value of Alëna’s process above is when the language becomes embedded into the project. When a project for designing “walls”, becomes a project exploring “membranes” everything changes. This might be a future discussion on it’s own.

Why a designer needs a system

I have watched design students attempting to research a topic by burying themselves in content that they will never have the time to read, and for the most part are likely not to comprehend. It is possible to watch the brain shut down as the introduction weaves into calculations and experiment data, which may ultimately have limited value to the final project.

I’ve also seen students shy away from unknown concepts, without giving themselves a chance to investigate and understand these concepts in their own discipline specific language.

The reality is very rarely a lack of “skill” or “ability”, but rather a lack of time and confidence. Once that layer of ice breaks and a student begins to own a concept for themselves, projects transform in front of your eyes.

As a result, we encourage students to explore their research in stages. Stage one focuses on gathering a broad, quick array of content, that allows a contextual view of the project, before identifying key areas to dive in for deeper analysis. I have never had a framework to describe this, so I like the idea of S. Kivsha’s first pass over many papers, with Alëna’s concept definition as core tools to help shape the initial discovery processes. And of course, it goes without saying that this research should cover design and biology in parallel, but you don’t need to hear me rant about that again.

I’ll see if I can go find some specific examples, and get some feedback from ex-students that might add to this space, because I think it is an extremely valuable discussion.


4 Comments on “Helping Designers Navigate Science”

  1. Alëna Konyk says:

    “When a project for designing “walls”, becomes a project exploring “membranes” everything changes.” – What a great way of putting it!

    I find, great people to learn this technique from are biomedical engineers! They not only have to sift through tons of scientific (anatomy) papers, they also have to constantly relate it back and forth to their medical device design process through a rigorous stats-heavy quantitative approach.

    But designers have an advantage of being experts at qualitative research. Now, if only designers could master just a bit of the empirical reductionist approach …

  2. […] Helping Designers Navigate Science:: This interesting post from the Bouncing Ideas blog discusses how to read scientific papers, harvest concepts from the research phase and finally develop a research system. […]

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