Thursday, February 18, 2016

The N questions you always need to answer for any research project, all the time

Especially when it's a new project, people will always ask you a lot of questions:

- What's your Research Question? (similarly, what's your Hypothesis?)
- What's your Contribution?
- Why is it Research?
- Who will it help? (or, who cares?)
- What are you doing?
- What problem are you addressing?
- Is that a real/important problem?
- Why will this solve that problem?
- How is your work different than (any one of 1000 tangentially-related things)?
- How is it done today, and what's wrong with that?
- How will you do it?
- How will you evaluate it?

It really helps if you can answer them all, all the time. You will get instant cred and people will let you do your thing. Unfortunately, it's kind of like air bubbles in a plastic sheet: when you squeeze some of them out, then some of them reappear. Like, if you nail down "how will you do it?" then people will ask "well if you know how to do it, then why is it research?" And if you nail down "Who cares?" down to a small subset, then people will ask "Is that an important problem?"

I'm going to order them from most to least important, in my mind: (note! I am not a grant funder.)

1. What are you doing? (Please, be concise. You get one sentence. Now try it in three sentences.)
2. What problem are you addressing? -- only if it's not obvious.
3. How is your work different than (100 closely-related things)? This is an important question if someone is actually bringing up something that they think is the same thing. This is not an important question if someone is just trying to sound clever.
4. Is this problem a real problem? -- downgraded because in HCI we solve lots of non-real-problems. And it's hard to tell what's a "real problem." If you mean "is it malaria?" then no, we're not solving malaria. You can always play problem-one-upmanship, and it's usually not a fun game to play.
5. Why will your work solve this problem? -- only worth asking if it's not obvious.
6. How is it done today, and what's wrong with that? -- downgraded because usually the answer is "it's not done today."
7. How will you evaluate it? -- again, sometimes it's hard to know until you do it.

These are sometimes not worth asking but people will anyway:
... 10. What's your Research Question or Hypothesis? -- This is valid for some kinds of research, like psychology. This is less valid in the more inventor-ish types of research. People will still ask it anyway.
11. How is your work different than (900 not-really-related things)? -- Sometimes people will ask this to try to sound smart.
12. How will you do it? -- if I knew, it wouldn't be research, would it? Still, people will ask this, and it helps to be able to wave your arms.

These are often not worth asking but people will anyway:
... 100. Why is it Research? -- Ugh. Academics love to ask this. Basically, why aren't you starting a company and doing this? And "because it's goddamn hard to start a company" or "this should be done but nobody wants to pay for it" don't count.
101. What's your Contribution? -- This is a thinly veiled version of "Why Is It Research?"

But yeah, I guess if you want to be good at research, answer all of them all the time.

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