In ordinary English, “to reflect” and “reflection” refer to deeper-level thinking. Collins Cobuild English Dictionary describes that “when you reflect, you think deeply about something.” Apple’s dictionary, in turn, defines reflection as “serious thought or consideration: he doesn’t get much time for reflection” (emphasis is original).
In an academic research context, the meaning is quite similar. When a researcher reflects, they seek answers to questions on what research questions they should focus on, do they approach the research question with the right methods, what decisions they have to do during the research, what limitations they have to accept in their research, and what conclusions they can draw from their findings. Asking these questions and answering to them are examples of deep thinking.
These questions show that reflection is an important element in all stages of academic practice, such as
- in the identification of a topic for research
- in the selection of appropriate methods to study the topic
- in the empirical part of the study where the collected data may deviate from what was expected, possibly directing attention to findings that may or may not be even more important than what was originally expected
- in the analysis of the data and making sense of its findings
- in the writing about the process, its findings, and what their significance is
Common to all of the examples in this list is the focus on “staying on track” of the research process: making sure all the time that there will be something meaningful – a research contribution – in the end of the process. Reflection is therefore an essential element of finding out how to navigate successfully past the challenges of the research process, and knowing what the findings imply.
In the spirit of this blog, which focuses on writing, this post will focus on how to write reflectively in a thesis or an academic article. This text works well with my earlier writing about an academic text’s storyline, where it is easy to notice, at least after reading this post, how reflection plays an important role in the narrative generation.
General characteristics of reflection
From the introduction above, I want to highlight the following characteristics:
- Depth. Reflection explores matters beyond, above, or underlying the practical matters of research. By doing this, it supplements those parts of writing that focus on plain reporting (e.g., what has been written in literature, or how research methods were carried out, or what data was collected, or what stages a prototyping project included).
- Explanatory style. Reflection gives an explanation for why the research was carried out in a certain way and not some other way. By explaining the decisions about methods, and the reasonings behind the conclusions, it makes the researcher’s process understandable for the reader.
- Higher viewpoint. Reflection looks at matters from a higher vantage point, “from the outside”. This way it can explain the reasons for subjective choices in more objective terms, such as by linking it to other research writings, practical limitations that could not be overcome, or personal preferences that build on the authors’ prior experiences, for example.
- Navigation in an unknown terrain. With all the characteristics above, the reflection helps in managing the unavoidable uncertainties of every research or design process. It prepares for expecting the challenges that lie ahead. During practical research work, such as when one gathers data or builds prototypes, it helps in noticing interesting features, unexpected outcomes, and needs for decision-making between alternative courses of action. In the writing up the findings, it helps in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the work that was carried out, what the project’s findings are, and what implication and future considerations arise from them.
Reflection during a research or design process
From the last point, where I listed the benefits of reflection before, during and after the practical “execution” of research or design project, it is evident that researchers and designers should preferably reflect all the time. They should repeatedly ask questions such as “What should be the best course of actions now?”, “Are there alternative ways to do the things that I am now doing?”, “What matters can I leave out from my focus, and which ones should I focus particularly on?”, “Am I still going towards the goal that I had in the beginning, or have I shifted to a different goal? If I have, should I shift back, or change my goal?”
The questions above are examples of reflection-in-action: reflective questions that one can ask as a part of their practical work, and thereby make it part of their creative process. This is a viewpoint that design theorist Donald Schön (1983, 1992) has particularly endorsed: creative practice (applies both to research and design) can be described as “reflective conversation with the situation” where the designer/researcher proceeds by making conscious “framing experiments” by which they frame and re-frame the problem that lies in front of them, and learn by observing the results. Schön’s book The Reflective Practitioner (1983) contains a widely cited example of reflection-in-action from architectural practice that is worth reading.
Although Schön does not describe reflection-in-action using the terms “problem space” or “design space”, I find it very useful to think reflection-in-action as an ongoing exploration and re-definition of the problem space and the problem itself. The idea that a design process both explores and constructs the design space has been advocated especially in Kees Dorst and Nigel Cross’s writing (2001), who are other prominent design theorists. One way to conceptualize this reflective process is as follows, based on interaction designer Bill Buxton’s illustration (2007, p. 388) that I have modified in Figure 1 but whose caption I am copying in entirety from Buxton.
Figure 1. “Design is about exploring and comparing the relative merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time and for any given reason, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in a product.” (Buxton, 2007, p. 388).
The exclamation marks (!) in the diagram illustrate learning moments that are particularly important to note when describing the design or research process, such as a choice about a prototype’s shape, or a suitable methodology that should match a research question.
What is important here is that the entire design process can be seen as “branching exploration and comparison”. The same applies to research: also there the different stages of empirical work require their own critical analysis that ascertain that the process is progressing towards a solution. These stages are useful to be presented to the reader when the thesis or article is written from the process. They showcase the author’s skills in being able to work maturely with an open-ended problem and its challenges.
How are the alternatives and their solutions identified
Here are some strategies that help you reflect during the research or design process:
- Analyse whether another researcher or designer could decide to proceed using different methods or approaches. Analyse both alternatives, find reasons why one would be better than another, and select the one that seems better.
- Compare your project to similar ones in the literature. Decide whether you want to use the same approach, or choose a different path, and why.
- Alternatively, use other external reference materials, such as benchmarking to other projects or products, and apply similar reflection as in the second bullet point.
- Explicate your subjective preferences and identify the plausible alternatives (e.g., “I wanted to prioritise human values over utilitarian ones because…”)
- Identify tensions, contradictions or tradeoffs in the design or research problem, and use them as decision-making junctions.
In order to avoid becoming paralysed by the number of possibilities that could be reflected, do not try to be exhaustive in everything that you do. The purpose, as explained by Schön, is to use reflection as your tool that generates meaningful possibilities, and helps you thereby advance further in the design process.
Reflection in a thesis or an article
Now, finally, we can discuss how reflection should be visible in the written text.
Obviously, all the elements, listed in various parts of the sections above, give already an idea what to include as reflections in a text. Thus, following the general characteristics given in this post’s Introduction, reflection should add depth, explanations, a higher viewpoint, and this way navigate the reader through an unknown terrain of your research/design process. It should also describe your answers to the questions that you have been asking during the process, thereby giving an idea for the reader as to what question or design problem you started with in the beginning, and what events possibly led you to change your focus, and what choices you had to do along the way, and how you made those choices.
These examples on what to reflect about in the text are very similar to many elements of my earlier blog post that presents storyline for an academic text. In a nutshell, here are examples from that blog post on reflection points that most academic texts are expected to contain:
|Section of the text||Topics to reflect on|
|Introduction||Problematization: Critical analysis of the current state-of-affairs in the world that needs to be studied in more detail.
Motivation: Problematization’s constructive follow-up where an approach is suggested to the problematized topic.
|Related research||Identification of the bodies of knowledge: An analysis of the research question or design problem that focuses on identifying what knowledge is important to use from previous research.
Reviews of bodies of knowledge: A critical analysis of the knowledge in the end of each sub-section about a body of knowledge. This analysis shows the “research gap” that remains to be found out.
Summary of knowledge: A constructive wrap-up of all the knowledge, and an analysis on how realistic the research question / design problem is in light of all this knowledge, and how it needs to be adjusted.
|Method||Methodological reflection and choice of methods: A constructive analysis of possible methods that can be used to answer the question / problem. For example, may describe, referring back to related research, how other researchers/designers have solved similar problems before, and whether the same methods can be used also in the present study. After these reflections, a constructive conclusion can describe the approach and methods that you have chosen among the alternatives.|
|Results/Findings/Project||Answers to the research question / design problem. This is the “execution” part of the text, and can be different depending on the nature of the study.
If the study is a design project, the description of the work done can contain reflections on what was learned during the project, what surprises emerged, what corrections to the approach were made, what insights were obtained and how, and how the framing of the design problem therefore changed. All these elements look at the design project from a higher viewpoint, compare it to its original goals, and help to navigate the project’s description towards its design solution or answer.
If the study is an open-ended qualitative study, the same element apply as above.
If the study is close-ended quantitative study, reflection may relate to outcomes that were unexpected and which therefore need further analysis.
Evaluation of the result. If the study contained a prototype that was tested, the test itself is a critical analysis of the design’s success, and needs to contain a reflection on whether the prototype successfully satisfied the original goals.
Additional analyses. If the findings contain surprises, the reasons for them can be discussed.
|Discussion||Expansion. After a nutshell summary of the study’s main findings, their wider discussion helps to contextualize them in relation to their environment. For example, if the finding presented a prototype, its suitability for a larger ecosystem of technologies, tools and human practices can be reflected.
Implications. Reflection on what further thoughts should be drawn from the findings.
Limitations. Reflection on the study’s shortcomings, to show that the author is able to understand the limits of their work, and point out what to focus on in the future to alleviate them.
If at least most, if not all, of these items are found in your article or thesis, then it probably satisfies the needs of the readers who expect that the researcher is able to carry out reflection on their own research.
Concluding words for designers
The following words are written especially for designers, but they apply also to applied research fields in general, especially to those studies that have had exploratory, open-ended research questions (e.g., what is quite common in HCI).
Design is a discipline with more open-endedness than many other fields where academic texts are written. The design problems are more open-ended, for example, than in most scientific or engineering disciplines. This means that design processes can involve much more personal judgment and subjective decision-making in design than in these other fields. This is a reason why reflection is a particularly important part of writing about design: you need to be able to explain your design choices because there are no objective criteria on which other disciplines may be able to base their judgments.
One result from the requirement is that although design can be often visually represented (e.g., with pictures), it does not usually speak for itself: it is not guaranteed that the reader can understand what the designer has focused on in the design process, and how they have solved it. Therefore it rarely suffices to present a plain presentation of the starting point, a report about the stages of a project, and the outcome, such as a physical prototype. Instead, these stages require explanation that help the readers (or customers, in a company context), to appreciate the details that the design contains.
Reflection is a skill that can be practiced, and by remaining mindful about the principles and advices above, you will be better and better equipped with an ability to prove that what you have produced is based on solid, critical and productive analysis.
Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
Dorst, K. & Cross, N. (2001). Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem–solution. Design Studies, 22(5), 425–437.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Schön, D. A. (1992). Designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. Knowledge-Based Systems, 5(1), 3–14.