What Researchers Can Learn From Designers

This quarter, I had the opportunity to be one of 12 Stanford PhD students from a diverse set of disciplines admitted to the Creativity in Research Scholars (CIRS) Program offered by the d.school at Stanford University. In this program, we learned and applied design thinking methods to push the boundaries of our thinking and create new approaches to our research. This program was one of the most unique and thought-provoking classes I’ve ever taken at Stanford. As a PhD student, I tend to focus on the details of my specific research area, and so this program was an eye-opener; encouraging me to view my research from a different perspective, and pushing me out of my comfort zone. In this post, I will be writing about some of the things we did, my key takeaways from this class, and my thoughts on what researchers like me should learn from designers.

Communicating Effectively

In our first class meeting, we were told to introduce ourselves and our research to the group in two minutes. Though it might seem like a very simple exercise, this was surprisingly a challenge as we had to explain our research to other people that weren’t familiar with our research field, let alone our research topic. I am so used to being around people of my discipline, and people who are familiar with my research topic, that I always want to start explaining my research in detail.

However, I realize it’s important to be able to convey our research topic to ordinary people, which means being able to explain our research in the simplest terms possible, not using jargons specific to my discipline, and letting go of some of my ego of wanting to show how much I know.

As for what exactly my research is about, I develop computer models to simulate and predict the impacts of disasters, such as earthquakes. Some of the questions I aim to answer in my research include: how many and which buildings will be destroyed? How many years will it take to reconstruct all the damaged buildings? and what policies can we propose to make the reconstruction process faster?

Of course, these are very broad questions that are not exactly what I’m studying. And as the PhD student doing the research, I always have an urge to explicitly clarify it. But one of the main things I learned through the CIRS program, is to think about our audience, their backgrounds, and whether or not they care about the specifics of my research. I learned that it’s more important for researchers to explain their research in such a way that the other party can relate to it, which sometimes means tailoring it for different people.

Thinking Visually

In one of our classes, we had a guest lecture from Professor Sebastian Kernbach on visual thinking for research. He first asked us why it was important for us to be able to think visually, and his answer struck a chord with me: to be able to get insights, clarity, and perceived progress. I’m sure I’m not the only PhD student that struggles with thinking that they’re not making progress, and so for me, I was very excited about the workshop.

Professor Kernbach explained the importance of visual thinking for communicating not only with other people but also with ourselves. He introduced many different types of visual thinking tools, such as the perspectives diagram, research roadmap, conversion table, and message maps.

One of the highlights for me was when he introduced the concept of overview first, details on demand through the visual tool PhD on a page. Similar to the concept of explaining our research in the simplest terms possible, Professor Kernbach emphasized the need for explaining only high-level information first, and explain the details if and only if it is necessary. We concluded the workshop by trying some of these methods out.

Identifying Stakeholders

As I mentioned previously, as I continue my PhD, I become more and more immersed, surrounding myself only with people that are familiar with my discipline. During the CIRS program, the teaching team challenged us to brainstorm every single person that is somewhat related to our research and creating what we call a stakeholder map. To a lot of us, the most obvious people related to our research, is of course our advisors, other PhD students, collaborators, or other researchers in the field. However, we were pushed to think about stakeholders that are one, two, or even three connections away from us; people that we have never really thought of being related to our research, and even people who might potentially be one of our end-users.

Here’s my stakeholder map that I ultimately came up with:

I thought that the stakeholder map exercise is great because we were able to zoom out and take a step back from our direct circle. Also, it’s a great tool to be able to visually see groups that we are more connected with, and others that are further away from us.

Conducting Empathetic Interviews

We then spent a couple of weeks practicing empathetic interviews, which is a fancy term for having a conversation with people, where the focus is on them, and not us. The teaching team challenged us to contact stakeholders from our map that we wouldn’t have reached out otherwise (I was challenged to reach out to the President of Indonesia).

Though I didn’t manage to reach the President of Indonesia, I did get the chance to talk to a diverse set of people in insurance, FEMA, NGOs, and other organizations related to disaster management. There were a lot of inner monologues happening before each of the interviews. Who am I to be talking to them? I don’t have anything to offer them. I don’t know what to ask them.

After letting go of my inner perfectionist, however, I learned that it’s completely fine for us to not have anything to offer them. The purpose of the empathetic interviews is for us to keep an open mind, to learn from them, and to hear their experiences. From the interviews, I learned that the problem in the disaster field is completely different from what I am working on in my research. I imagine that the more often I conduct these empathetic interviews, the more research ideas I can come up with.

Brainstorming and Prototyping

After conducting our interviews, we were asked to summarize our interviews, and list several “how would we” questions. In the research world, this would be similar to research questions. However, instead of looking through the literature for gaps in the research domain, we developed questions based on what the pain points and problems are our interviewees.

One of the “how would we” question that I came up with was:

How would we streamline the process for disaster survives to get post-disaster financing needed to reconstruct their homes?

Using this question, we did a very quick 15-minute group brainstorming/ideating session to come up with as many possible solutions. I learned that the key to generating as many ideas as possible is to turn off the self-criticizing and self-judgment switch in ourselves. As someone who is a perfectionist, this was the hardest part of the exercise. However, I was very impressed at how many ideas we were able to come up with in that very short amount of time.

Our final exercise was implementing one of the brainstorming ideas and creating a prototype (a fancy term for a draft) in under 20 minutes. Similar to the brainstorming exercise, I thought the hardest part for me was to start and come up with something because I was always judging my thoughts before I even put it down on paper. However, I’m realizing that once I pass that hurdle of self-judgment, brainstorming is actually very fun and rewarding!

Takeaways for Research

I learned a lot during the 10 weeks of the CIRS program and thankful to have met a group of diverse PhD students in a time when meeting new people is difficult. I’ve talked about most of the things we learned during the CIRS program, but if I were to sum up my CIRS experience in a couple of points, it would be: to always think about other people by putting myself in other people’s shoes, always be curious even though it’s outside of my comfort zone, and not limiting myself through self-judgment.

Structural Engineering PhD Candidate at Stanford University