Typology of possible research findings (i.e., “contributions”)

Introduction

A good academic text delivers a clear and interesting message. That is often described as “contribution”. Good contributions change the reader’s way of thinking or acting, and increase their understanding and knowledge about an interesting subject: “a contribution is made when a manuscript clearly adds, embellishes, or creates something beyond what is already known” (Ladik & Stewart, 2008, p. 157). Such findings therefore present something that the researchers did not know so far; that is what makes the research article interesting.

Also a BA or a MA thesis may deliver such a finding, but it is not crucial that a finding of a thesis should be a considered as a research contribution that generates novel understanding.

So, what are the possible findings and contributions that academic texts can make? By reading papers and learning from them, one can find plenty of possibilities. This article presents some classifications that I have found from other researchers’ writings, and also a longer list that is more tailored for the fields of design and HCI.

The presentation is in two parts: first the academic articles, and the BA/MA theses in HCI and design.

Types of findings and contributions in academic articles

Contributions can be classified along several dimensions. Some of the existing classifications are oriented to theoretical contributions. For example, Ladik and Stewart’s (2008) contribution continuum, written for a marketing research audience, divides the possible contributions to 8 classes, organized from minor to fundamental scientific impacts:

  1. Straight replications: studies that verify whether a finding that has been already published can be repeated.
  2. Replication and extension: similar to the one above, but with an adjustment.
  3. Extension of a new theory/method in a new area.
  4. Integrative review (e.g., meta-analysis).
  5. New theories to explain an old phenomenon, possibly also including a comparison between an existing and the new theory against each other to find out which one works better.
  6. Identifications of new phenomena worth of attention.
  7. Grand syntheses that integrate earlier theories together.
  8. New theories that predict new phenomena.

In addition to presenting the continuum, Ladik and Stewart’s (2008) text is great also in emphasizing many other characteristics of good academic texts too, such as a need to think about the target reader audience, need to emphasise surprise, and demonstrate passion and relevance of the topic that has been studied.

In human–computer interaction (HCI), which is more oriented to human-created objects, other kinds of contributions can be recognized. Wobbrock (2012) and Wobbrock and Kientz (2016) do not define the contributions based on their magnitude, but in terms of types of outcomes. As we can see, the theoretical contributions that were listed above are only one possibility in applied fields such as HCI and design:

  • empirical research findings (e.g., what factors and phenomena play an important role in different situations where people use technologies)
  • artefacts (i.e., designs and technologies)
  • methods
  • theories
  • datasets
  • surveys and reviews of existing research
  • opinions

In this classification, Wobbrock and Kientz’s papers themselves could be best classified as survey-like contributions, since their focus is on reviewing the kinds of research contributions in a research field as a whole. In this sence they synthesize together and explicate the practices in the field. In addition to being more directly useful also for HCI/design, Wobbrock’s suggestions are also great because both texts list papers from HCI research that exemplify these contribution types.

What is particular in the list above is the role of artifacts as a research contributions. This is particular since it highlight’s HCI’s (and also design’s) nature as a “problem-solving” science (Oulasvirta and Hornbæk, 2016): in addition to producing the traditionally well-acknowledged empirical and conceptual (theoretical) contributions, HCI researchers also make constructive contributions by developing new technologies and designs.

Final distinction between contributions is their level of critical stance towards earlier research and practice. Most contributions are knowledge-increasing: they present new findings, expand the research to new areas, make existing theories and methods more detailed, accurate or more appropriate for some context, for example. These contributions are really common: with my colleagues we found, for example, that 94% of research papers in information systems research are knowledge-increasing (Salovaara et al., 2020). Many of the contribution classes presented in the lists above are like these too.

Other contributions are knowledge-contesting: they identify problems in the existing theories and methods, or in the practices by which they are used (Salovaara et al., 2020). They may also identify limits (“boundary conditions”) to the extent to which earlier contributions can be applied. In the spirit of science and research being a self-correcting process, the purpose of these knowledge-contesting contributions is to correct earlier mistakes in research and keep the research on the right track.

To summarise the considerations above, the following table presents a synthesis of possible contributions in HCI and design. A vast majority of the papers represent one (or sometimes several) of these contributions:

Contribution type Description Example
Boundary condition E.g., finding that there is a hard limit in some theory or a method that cannot be overcome by following the existing strategies. In mobile settings, users are usually not able to attend to their mobile phones more than 4 seconds at a time (Oulasvirta et al., 2005).
Demonstration of novel possibilities E.g., a new technology that has not been possible to build before Machine learning can help web designers develop better user interface layouts (Todi et al., 2016).
Extension to a new field E.g., adapting an approach to a new context What HCI research can offer for sexual wellbeing (Bardzell and Bardzell, 2011).
Falsification Demonstration that an accepted theory/belief is not true or has limited generalizability User interfaces should not be designed by having a premise that human behaviour is always planful. That is because of the situatedness of human action. Communication breakdowns between humans and technologies happen are inevitable, and assuming planful behaviour increases their severity (Suchman, 1987).
Incremental improvement Presentation of a solution that outperforms earlier approaches In mobile maps, it is better to visualize off-screen targets with triangle-like shapes (“wedges”) than with earlier-recommended arrows or radius-based circles (Gustafson et al., 2008).
Introducing another research field to one’s own field’s researchers, and showing that it can help in solving an interesting problem Presentation of a research field whose importance has not been noticed but which offers a lot of value Information foraging theory: that the theories about animals’ food-hunting can be applied to humans’ ways of searching for information in information spaces (Pirolli and Card, 1995).
New method Description of a method that is useful in many situations “Wizard of Oz” method: Futuristic technologies that cannot be built yet may be realistically studied if a human plays the computer’s part without the user’s awareness (Gould, 1983)
Novel concept E.g., an important phenomenon that needs to be remembered in future research and design ”Plausible deniability”: In human-human communication through a technology (e.g., a chat), technology should offer a possibility for humans to remain non-responsive without fear of “losing their face” (Nardi et al., 2000)
Sense-making E.g., an open-ended study that reports and analyses a phenomenon that is so far poorly understood What conversation strategies do online trolls use to derail and harm online conversations (Hardaker, 2013).
Synthesis / meta-analysis / review Summary of existing knowledge in the field Review of literature about the differences in novice and expert designers’ design processes (Cross, 2004).
Recommendations / guidelines Description by an experienced researcher or researcher team on how to use a certain method correctly. How qualitative data should be analysed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
Research agenda / manifesto Call for researchers to start addressing a neglected issue Call for attending to the widely spread misunderstanding and misuse of the term ”affordance” in much of design practice (Torenvliet, 2003).

This list is not comprehensive, and some areas have been covered in more detail than others. What is however notable in this list’s items is that papers about these contributions can be written using the same narrative format. That is because most of these contributions require a study: some method by which some material is analysed so that findings can be presented. Such papers can be readily written following the IMRaD-style narrative. Only the last two contributions – recommendations/guidelines and research agendas/manifestos – may need a different kind of a narrative and can therefore be harder to write well.

Examples of non-contributions in academic research

Notably, there are also certain types of papers that are often submitted for publication but which are often rejected and will therefore be rarely found in academic literature. When one is writing an article, it is a good idea to make sure that one is not writing one of those types of papers. Four common non-contributions are following:

  • Presentation of a well-designed system and its design process. These papers present well-designed systems and include evaluations that demonstrate the high quality of the outcome. The problem with these kinds of papers is that for a researcher looking for novel information, such papers offer very little to learn: they “only” describe well-conducted design process that already uses well-known methods. Only if these design processes solve hard problems in some contexts, and that these problems and their solutions generalise to other contexts too, the papers start to have value in terms of an academic contribution. That is because then the academic reader may conclude that the authors have found a way to address a problem that previously has been considered difficult to tackle. This kind of a study can be turned into an academic contribution by identifying a “design problem” that was solved in the process, and explaining why this problem is difficult and in what design situations similar problems can be encountered (i.e., where does the design problem and solution generalise to).
  • Case study report. Papers of this kind present observations or interview-based findings from field studies, and describe carefully methods that were used in these studies. A lot of effort may have been put into gathering all the data and to analyse it. Unfortunately, despite all the effort spent, also in this case, the conclusion by a reader may be that the story is interesting but lacks novelty: papers of this kind may be a well-conducted research projects but which only have applied rigorous methods without yielding novel findings. This kind of a study can be turned into an academic contribution by identifying an interesting and novel finding, and deepening the literature research so that it convinces the reader about the novelty and the need for this finding in the research field (e.g., a “research gap”).
  • Mappings of findings to a framework. Some papers present analyses from a complex settings and map these findings to a well-known theoretical framework (e.g. activity theory). The problem with such a finding is that it counts mostly as a demonstration that the framework can be used to make sense of observational data. This may not be surprising, if the same has been shown in numerous earlier studies too. This can be turned into an academic contribution, for example, by finding out that the framework cannot be used to make sense of some parts of the data, or that the framework needs adaptation because of the novel findings.
  • Landscaping and clustering studies without conclusions. Some automatic data analysis methods nowadays allow researchers to generate elaborate descriptive visualizations and groupings that can summarise complex phenomena in a neat manner. Examples of these methods include social network analysis, clustering methods of multidimensional data (e.g., factor analysis, k-means clustering and topic modeling), and sentiment analysis about natural language. If a paper only presents the outputs of such analyses, without identifying non-obvious patterns or conclusions, the paper easily lacks a clear contribution. An academic contribution would include an actionable message to the research field: a call for changing the research focus, or think about a common phenomenon in a new way. Typically this requires that the researchers interpret their clusters and identify something unexpected from it.

Contributions and findings in BA and MA theses in HCI and design

In BA and MA theses, the requirements are slightly different than in academic articles. The difference lies in the need for presenting a contributions vs another, more modest kind of a finding. A thesis does not need to demonstrate novelty to an entire research field; it only needs to demonstrate the ability to apply the relevant methods, theories and analytical thinking with respect to a meaningful problem of practical importance. Therefore the three last above-presented examples of non-contributions are, in fact, good candidates for excellent BA or MA theses even if they lack an academic contribution.

One may therefore conclude that in BA and MA theses, the goals can be more practically determined: They may orient to finding good designs or solutions for specific design problems. They may be reflections about the nature of a design process, such as explorations whether a certain design approach yields findings that satisfy the designer. They may also be oriented towards a designer or practitioner community than the researchers. Therefore they may deliver a call or message to those communities to start addressing issues or become aware of matters that are being neglected. Such issues do not need to relate to academic activities, but to societal issues, for example.

One or many contributions?

There can be one or many contributions in a paper. Some contribution types also go naturally together. For example, sometimes the most interesting contributions appear in the Discussion, after the answers to the research question(s) have already been presented. Thus a paper about an exploratory study may be sense-making in its Findings (e.g., by identifying an interesting underlying pattern or concept in the findings and by giving a name for it), but a manifesto-like contribution in its Discussion if it thenshows how that concept may be crucial to remember in other situations too. Many readers may find that this manifesto-like contribution is actually more important than the text’s original finding.

However, many instructions on academic writing recommend that every text focuses on delivering only one “contribution”. For example, instructions published in Nature’s web page recommend to “Keep your message clear” (Gewin, 2018). There is a good reason for this: To offer a clear and interesting message, different contributions usually require different investigations. If one tries to combine several contributions together, they may require different methods, and these methods may conflict with each other, leading to biased and compromised results. Another problem is the need to reach a high clarity with the paper: if there are several intended contributions, explaining them clearly can be difficult. Jumping from talking about one contribution to another may be necessary, but this may confuse the reader. It is important to remember that it is the author’s responsibility to demonstrate that the findings are significant and interesting (e.g., Ladik and Stewart, 2008). Confusions should be avoided at all cost.

Conclusion

To conclude, to offer a clear contribution or a finding, it is a good idea to identify early on what kind of a story one wants to tell with their text. Following the recommendations of the IMRaD structure, for instance, all the attention of the paper’s argumentation can then be directed to delivering that message as clearly and convincingly as possible. This helps the readers – evaluators, reviewers, and others – appreciate the work that the author has done.

Acknowledgments

Thanks for Oscar Person for tipping me about Ladik & Stewart’s paper on research continuum.

References

Bardzell, J. & Bardzell, S. (2011). Pleasure is your birthright: Digitally enabled designer sex toys as a case of third-wave HCI. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2011) (pp. 257–266). New York, NY: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/1978942.1978979

Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Gewin, V. (2018). The write stuff: How to produce a first-class paper that will get published, stand out from the crowd and pull in plenty of readers. Nature, Vol. 555, pp. 129-130. Available at: https://media.nature.com/original/magazine-assets/d41586-018-02404-4/d41586-018-02404-4.pdf. Also available, with a different title, at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02404-4 (retrieved 11 November 2020).

Cross, N. (2004). Expertise in design: An overview. Design Studies, 25(5), 427–441. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.destud.2004.06.002

Gould, J. D., Conti, J., & Hovanyecz, T. (1983). Composing letters with a simulated listening typewriter. Communications of the ACM, 26(4), 295–308.  https://doi.org/10.1145/2163.358100

Gustafson, S., Baudisch, P., Gutwin, C., & Irani, P. (2008). Wedge: Clutter-free visualization of off-screen locations. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2008) (pp. 787–796). New York, NY: ACM Press.. https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357179

Hardaker, C. (2013). “Uh….not to be nitpicky,,,, but…the past tense of drag is dragged, not drug.” – An overview of trolling strategies. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, 1(1), 58–86.  https://doi.org/10.1075/jlac.1.1.04har

Ladik, D. M. & Stewart, D. W. (2008). The contribution continuum. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 36, 157–165.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-008-0087-z

Nardi, B. A., Whittaker, S., & Bradner, E. (2000). Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action. In Proceedings of the 2000 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2000) (pp. 79–88). New York, NY: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/358916.358975

Oulasvirta, A., Tamminen, S., Roto, V., & Kuorelahti, J. (2005). Interaction in 4-second bursts: The fragmented nature of attentional resources in mobile HCI. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005) (pp. 919–928). New York, NY: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/1054972.1055101

Oulasvirta, A. & Hornbæk, K. (2016). HCI research as problem-solving. In J. Kaye, A. Druin, C. Lampe, D. Morris, & J. P. Hourcade (Eds.), Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing (CHI 2016) (pp. 4956–4967). New York, NY: ACM Press.  https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858283

Pirolli, P. & Card, S. (1995). Information foraging in information access environments. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 1995) (pp. 51–58). New York, NY: ACM Press/Addison-Wesley. https://doi.org/10.1145/223904.223911

Salovaara, A., Upreti, B. R., Nykänen, J. I., & Merikivi, J. (2020). Building on shaky foundations? Lack of falsification and knowledge contestation in IS theories, methods, and practices. European Journal of Information Systems, 29(1), 65–83.  https://doi.org/10.1080/0960085X.2019.1685737

Suchman, L. A. (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human–Machine Communication. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Todi, K., Weir, D., & Oulasvirta, A. (2016). Sketchplore: Sketch and explore with a layout optimiser. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (CHI 2016) (pp. 543–555). New York, NY: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/2901790.2901817

Torenvliet, G. (2003). We can’t afford it! The devaluation of a usability term. Interactions, 10(4), 12–17. https://doi.org/10.1145/838830.838857

Wobbrock, J. O. (2012). Seven Research Contributions in HCI. The Information School, DUB Group, University of Washington. http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/Wobbrock-2012.pdf (retrieved 12 November 2020).

Wobbrock, J. O. & Kientz, J. A. (2016). Research contributions in human–computer interaction. Interactions (May–June), 38–44.  https://doi.org/10.1145/2907069

Writing a good storyline for a thesis or an article

Introduction

It is a big undertaking to write a thesis or an article. When the writer finally sends it for examination or review, they can only wish that its reader – whoever that may be – can grasp what they have wanted to say, find it credible, and get a positive vibe about its findings. If that succeeds, it would result in the outcome that the writer is looking for: a favourable evaluation (in the case of a thesis) or a review (in the case of an academic article), leading to a good grade or a publication.

Ensuring that the reviewer or examiner is happy and satisfied is however difficult because of many reasons, at least the following:

  • The reader is often unknown, and yet this person’s opinion is critical for the favourable review. One has to make the text understandable for a rather wide audience, as it cannot be tailored for a particular individual.
  • The author may have little prior experience on writing a text like a thesis or an academic article. To do anything for the first time is difficult, yet in this case this person should manage to perform well even if having very little practice.
  • There are lots of things that one wants to say in the article. It is difficult to say all of that so that it makes sense.

Yet many people succeed in this task. Many factors play a role in whether the examination or review is favourable. However one of the crucial ones is the understandable storyline, or “narrative”. The prerequisite for “good vibes” is that the text is presented in a logical order so that the reader never wonders why they are reading a certain part of it. That is because a logical order removes the effort from the reader to make sense of the research, and makes even the difficult topics easy to digest.

In this article, I will study and answer what a successful storyline of an academic text should be like. I will present a formula that is consistently followed in almost all academic writing. It is well-tried and tested, and most readers have learned to expect that a text will follow it, small deviations notwithstanding. Being truthful to what this article seeks to suggest, also this text has been written following the same principles.

After reviewing some of the options that are available for narrative planning, the suggestion will be presented in the Results section.

Review of possible storylines

Requirements for the narratives of academic texts, such as theses and articles, can be found from several places. Taylor & Francis – one of the leading publishers of academic research – emphasizes in its instructions the following rules: i) stick to the point, ii) create a logical framework, iii) don’t be afraid to explain, iv) clarity is key, v) be aware of the other literature in your field (and reference it), vi) make your references current and relevant and vii) be original (Taylor & Francis, n.d.). Of these, points i–iv are particularly related to the narrative. The same requirements of parsimony (i.e., saying only what is essential), being logical and clear, and providing explanations when appropriate, are echoed also in Springer’s – another big publisher – recommendations for giving a logical flow to the content and making the manuscript consistent and easy to read (Springer, n.d.). Similar recommendations can be found throughout academic community, and they echo the norm that should be followed.

With these requirements in mind, it is possible to analyse some canonical plot structures in order to find out how they serve the above-stated requirements. They are presented in the following.

The classical example –Aristotle’s suggestion to divide every narrative into three sections – meets the requirements well, but is rather unspecific. In Poetics, he suggests that in a tragedy, “a whole is what has a beginning and middle and end” (Aristotle, 335 BCE/1932). Wikipedia (n.d.) describes that these three stages should describe one causal chain of actions, where a stream of events is put into motion in the beginning where the protagonist faces a challenge. The middle part describes the protagonist’s attempts for resolution that also becomes a story of learning and personal growth. The end, finally, reveals how the protagonist fares in their question. While Aristotle described the structure of a classical tragedy, the need to have a causal chain of actions and a clear arch that starts from a challenge and concludes with a resolution provides one example of a structure that is logical and easy to read.

Another literature example is the classic thriller plot structure. It involves three stages where things are set in motion from an event such as murder, and the plot ends with a resolution, such as the revelation of the murderer’s identity. By having a question to be answered already in the beginning, the thriller plot structure suits for academic texts that also usually seek to answer a research question or verify a hypothesis. However, this structure does not obey the principle of clarity. This is because it prolongs the revelation of the solution purposely.

A third example is a news article that usually follows a so-called pyramid structure. Here the most important news is announced already in the heading, and it is incrementally substantiated with more background information in a layered manner. This is an economic method that optimizes the amount of information provided to the level of interest that a reader has for the content. The structure is clear, parsimonious and logical, yet it lacks a means to present a research question. It also lacks a causal narrative: a structure that repeatedly presents the facts in a deepening order does not allow the authors explain their reasoning and how they arrive at their conclusions.

Finally, academic world has its own narrative recommendation, known as IMRaD, referring to Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. It is also mentioned as the recommended narrative in Springer’s and Taylor & Francis’s instruction pages that were cited above. IMRaD has the Aristotlean structure where the challenge is presented in the Introduction in a form of a hypothesis or research question. This is followed with an incremental development of an answer, consisting of presentation of a research method and a result that has been obtained. The Aristotlean end is offered in the results section. The discussion, interestingly, is an element that previous structures have not mentioned, and is therefore unique to academic tradition. It resembles an epilogue where the author distances themselves from the immediate plot and reflects the narrative and its resolution “from above”. This allows the author for suggesting improvements and further thoughts about the story.

The recommendations stated above can be summarized as follows. A good academic article is parsimonious by sticking to the point, presents its contents in a logical order and explains issues to ensure clarity. Except for the pyramid structure used in news journalism, all the structures that were presented above emphasise that a good storyline starts with a puzzle or a problem, which is then developed, until a resolution is offered in the end of the paper. The IMRaD structure additionally includes a discussion, where the story is lifted to a meta-level reflection to provide the reader an understanding about the wider perspective of the research work.

How the principles of a good storyline can be identified

Having concluded the main elements of a good storyline based on recommendations in the literature, the question remains how such instructions should be “operationalized”, i.e., changed into actionable guidelines. This question is complicated by the fact that different  research fields may have their own particular practices and preferences.

While for other fields of research, a Google search reveals readymade guidelines for authors (e.g., for health care research, see a nice guideline by Perneger and Hudelson, 2004), for research in the fields of design and human–computer interaction (HCI) – main topics of the Writing about Design blog – I have failed to find a similar guideline. In the absence of written guidelines, in my personal case, the method for learning how to write academic texts has developed through practice. The most useful part of this practice for me has been the constant attempt to publish research papers in journals and conferences, especially when writing together with more experienced co-authors.

Another method is to read other authors’ papers and to review them. Especially reviewing and acting as an associate editor/chair develops the critical but constructive eye for narrative structures that are important in good papers. It is easy to learn to notice, for example, when a paper does not answer to the problem that has been defined in the beginning, or when important matters are missing from the paper, leaving the logical order unexplicated.

In the following section that seeks to answer the original research question of this article – what a successful storyline of an academic text should be like – I try to save the reader’s time from learning through trial and error, and directly apply some of the general but actionable principles.

Results

Based on personal experience and reflection on the different narrative structures in literature, the table below presents a suggestion for a common and recommended storyline that can be identified in most texts in design and HCI research.

Narrative element Description
Introduction
1. Opening sentence A claim that any reader finds easy to agree with. This brings them “on board” with the topic of the text.
2. Problematization Presentation of a problem that exists in the matters that the opening sentence described and which would need to be solved.
3. Motivation Clarification why it is important to devote efforts to address the problem.
4. Research questions (RQs) Crystallization of the most important issue in the problem. Explanation why knowing this answer in particular will be an important element in starting to solving the problem. Research question is the crux of the entire text: it will become the focus of everything that will follow until the Discussion. It is a good practice to use italics so that it is easy to spot from the text. There can be several RQs in a text, the fewer the better. Having three RQs makes the paper very difficult to write well.
5. Preview of the answer A short paragraph that describes what kind of answer this text will deliver to the RQ.
6. Outline (optional) If the text has a more complicated structure than is typical, it may be useful to orient the reader to this. For example, an outline may be helpful if the text presents parallel storylines that will meet in the end of the Results section, that can be pointed out.
Related research
1. Mapping of solution dimensions Reflection on the RQ from different viewpoints. This reflection can be based on common sense. For example, a design problem may be approachable through benchmarking of existing solutions and through analysis of requirements and opportunities that the context of the problem poses on the solution. 2-4 different viewpoints is a good number.
2. Review of the dimensions A subsection for each viewpoint presented above. These subsections tell what is known about the RQ from that viewpoint. Each subsection ends with a summarising paragraph that summarises how RQ can now be better understood in light of this information, but also point out the remaining ”research gap”. This further legitimises the need for this research.
3. Summary of research A wrap-up of all the knowledge that has been collected in the subsections, and a crystallization of what remains to be found out. The summary may also reiterate the original RQ and present a more focused one for the rest of the text.
Method
1. Methodological reflection Analysis of the best possible research method to answer the more detailed RQ and what remains to be answered. This analysis presents possible methods, mentions prior studies that have used the same method for a similar RQ, and then chooses the most suitable one, given how it matches with the RQ and what is realistic.
2. Presentation of the data collection method A neutral description of how some data was gathered to answer the RQ. If the method was a case study, this part includes also a presentation of the case study context and why it suits well for the RQ that was asked. If the text describes a design project, this is a description of how prototyping, for example, was used through a series of solution attempts, to arrive at a solution. This section does not present the data itself; it only tells how it was collected.
3. Presentation of data analysis method A neutral description of how the data was analysed. This may be also part of the Results section where it is interleaved with findings, especially in two cases: 1) if the analyses were very straightforward, such as statistical tests, and do not require a lot of explanation about details, or 2) if the analysis cannot be described without also presenting the data – this may be the case in exploratory design projects where different stages required a lot of decision-making and reflection.
Results
1. Descriptive data (optional) If needed, the Results can be started by briefly reporting general data about the research process and about the research context (e.g., overall statistics about participants).
2. Answers to the RQs A subsection for each RQ that the study had. In the spirit of “sticking to the point” (Taylor & Francis, n.d.) each subsection answers only the RQ. If there are also interesting patterns in the data, they can be pointed out, but their details are analysed in a different sub-section (see next item).
3. Evaluation of the result (if the result is a proposal) If the research presents a proposal, such as a service solution, a product concept or a prototype, this section presents an evaluation (with or without users) about its quality and whether it meets the requirements and addresses sufficiently the RQs.
4. Additional analyses (optional) If the data analysis revealed surprises that are related to the RQ but do not exactly answer to it, they can be presented and analysed here.
Discussion
1. Return to the beginning Repetition of the text’s goal and its RQs, because during the long Findings section the reader may have forgotten the big picture.
2. Summary of main findings Answers to the RQs in a nutshell.
3. Expansion A ”switch of gears” in the paper; simply a statement that says that the findings of the study give grounds for several important implications.
4. Implications A subsection for each wider implication from the findings. These are thoughts that no-one would be able to think about without carrying out all the work that has been described.
5. Limitations Presentation of the work’s limitations and an analysis how severe they are regarding the validity of the findings.
6. Closure (can be also its own section, titled “Conclusion”) Summary of the main message of the paper, building on the findings and implications, in relation to the problematization in the Introduction. Closure can have an uplifiting spirit, to leave the reader with a spirit that they have read something important.
Acknowledgments
1. Funding List of sources of financial support that made the research possible.
2. Intellectual support People who provided supervision, guidance, or gave comments are listed here. It is a good practice to be generous in the thank-yous.
References

This long and detailed structure follows the IMRaD format but is tailored for the needs of design and HCI related writing, and to applied research in general. It emphasizes the following principles in particular:

  • “Holding the reader by the hand”: Throughout the text, the reader feels never being lost. This is because the text contains intermediate summaries and recognizes all the decision points in the path from the motivation to the summary of findings.
  • Funnel-like structure: the narrative structure narrows down the problem to its most important elements in several stages. Some of the most important refocusing points are the presentation of the RQs, the reiteration of the RQs in light of existing knowledge, and the choice of the methods. Through these stages that are well explained in the structure, the reader is able to understand in all the points why the text “dives” into particular topics more deeply than in other ones.

This article itself has been written following the principles stated in the table. It may be a useful learning exercise to compare the contents in the table to the contents in this article overall.

Discussion

This text has addressed an important problem that especially inexperienced writers face when they are writing their first academic text, such as a thesis, or their first academic article, if they are PhD students. Even if the research itself may have been solid and well conducted, and therefore having interesting findings, the unclear narrative may make it impossible for a reader to appreciate this work.

With the proposal for a storyline presented in this paper, writers can adopt some of the rarely explicated principles in design and HCI literature and use them in their own writing. This decreases unnecessary stress in the writing process, which in itself is always a highly contentious experience.

Another implication from knowing what order to use in explaining the research process, and in checking that no parts are omitted from the text is that it helps in carrying out better research. Awareness of components that are expected from an academic text helps taking them into account when the research process is still ongoing.

However, it has to be emphasized that the structure presented in the Results section is not suitable for all texts. It works best in cases where the work involves an empirical part, such as a case study, interviews, an experiment, or an exploratory process. It is less suitable for essays, manifestos and commentaries, all of which are also academic genres. A critical reader may notice that this text has a weak Methods section. This is because I have used IMRaD to structure an essay-like paper where no clear method has been applied. A result of this has been that there have been difficulties to write anything about research methods. The text has also become longer than one would assume, which violates the call for avoiding anything that is not absolutely necessary. On the other hand, at the same time, important matters have been explained whenever needed – therefore meeting another goal of recommended academic writing (Taylor & Francis, n.d.).

With a clear guidance that is properly explained, even a challenging project such as thesis or article writing can become an insightful experience. Academic writing is a creative activity that gives an opportunity for the author to synthesise and make sense of their work, and crystallize it in a format that they can also later apply in future occasions. By putting down such reflections in a written format, they can also convince others about the rigour of their work, leading them to achieve life goals, be recruited to jobs, and pursue explorations that offer high levels of intellectual satisfaction.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank the participants of HelsinCHI clinic on CHI paper writing in 4 September 2020, where I presented the storyline the first time, and I received useful feedback. Heidi Paavilainen and Severi Uusitalo provided several crucial observations – both detailed and general ones – to the first draft of this blog post, which have now been taken into account.

References

Aristotle (335 BCE/1932). Poetics. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Perneger T.V. and Hudelson, P.M. (2004). Writing a research article: advice to beginners. International Journal for Quality in Health Care 16(3), 191–192. https://doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/mzh053

Springer (n.d.). https://www.springernature.com/gp/authors/campaigns/writing-a-manuscript/structuring-your-manuscript (retrieved 26 October 2020).

Taylor & Francis (n.d.). Writing a journal article. https://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/writing-a-journal-article/# (retrieved 26 October 2020).

Wikipedia (n.d.). Three-act structure. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-act_structure (retrieved 26 October 2020).