How to… writing a PhD thesis

Courtesy: © Og-vision |
Courtesy: © Og-vision |

This post is not about how conducting research. The best hints I found on that subject come from: Turabian K.L., 2003, A manual for Writers, of Research, Papers, Theses and Dissertations. This post is about the challenge of writing effectively – and it will be completed along my redaction process.

Writing a PhD thesis is hard work, indeed. But what makes it different from other similar tasks?
Working on a report or a story, spending any long-period of labour on a computer… own all common points with the one of writing a PhD thesis. It remains however different, as: it engages yourself, your integrity and identity and therefore, it is oriented toward a specific jury as well as a larger community, it must evidence originality and demonstrate anchoring into shared roots… this activity is closer to building an exhibition for a competition than writing a novel!

Things I’ve learnt (on myself) during the writing process.
Indeed! the most specific part of that activity remains in the fact it is personal. It becomes a path towards knowing self better. This explains why there is no one method, but several redaction hints to try out.

  • Wide and open spaces are good for inspiration, but are distracting
  • Busy places & seing friends is good for stepping back, but opens the way to small talk
  • Tiny and closed spaces are good to focus, but (can) dispirit and dries motivation
  • Meditation is good to break distraction, but should not replace a real break
  • Routine is necessary to avoid starting it all-over again every morning, but does not go well with isolation!

Reflection: How presenting design projects in a research publication (and especially a PhD thesis)?

Image courtesy:
Image courtesy:

I struggle to chose a way to present my design projects in the manuscript of my thesis, I relay here my random thoughts.
Why presenting a detailed account of a design project, to proof one is a good designer? That would not be part of the desired knowledge shared in a research. It makes sense to detail a design project and its progress steps when design choices and the whole work-in-progress experience generated knowledge that informed the experiment (ie. adjusting the design of the artefact or the one of the experiment protocol). Therefore, if one needs to support a project presentation with something else than text, what would be relevant?
After a quick brainstorm, I came up with three modes for presenting design project along a PhD thesis – this need to be discussed, corrected, mixed and/or combined.

brainstorming - how to publish design practice based research
brainstorming – how to publish design practice based research
Two challenges in publishing design-based research:

What is an appropriated format for design research publication? And especially research through design, within a PhD thesis.
After a quick brainstorm, I came up with two main challenges due to the nature of design artefacts – indeed, they are aesthetically “experienciable”.

  • Challenge 1: text does not provide material/aesthetic perception of artifacts (from photos/videos, to exhibitions, to demos, to experiment – one-shot or period of time)
  • Challenge 2: there are 2 different agendas in a situated design projects (client/project agenda + peers/experiment agenda


Challenge 1: visually and aesthetically supported publications
As I see it, behind all the publication question resides in particular two motivations: easing access of design trained researchers to the “production” and “reception” of knowledge. As an answer to this, various formats in the design and HCI communities tend to leave more space for visuals (Pictorials, extended abstracts, work in progress…). However, if a publication is essentially visually supported: how could it be relevant for the research community as well as for non-researchers (designers)?

Let us build on the Pictorials example and ask: what could be pictorials evaluation criteria? according this is a young and evolving format, dedicated to the DIS community.
1 contribute – to scientific knowledge
2 benefit – from being visual
3 crafted – relevantly and professionally
4 text – role, should accompany
5 format – is original


A step further would be to wonder, from a more general point of view, how to optimise the text-visual ratio in a visually-supported publication? Inspired by the DIS pictorial format guidelines, I would suggest that:

• visuals have to create a narrative on their own;
• work in progress documentation is only shown if it generated knowledge that strongly informed the design of the artifact or the experiment itself;
• text must not describe (repeat) visuals, it might reveal minutia or extract meaning from linking disparate content;
• Merging findings and discussion might make the presentation more concise;
• Give hints on how to exploit the knowledge produced;
• If pictorials are injected in a thesis: say a word on how it relates to the experiment/whole thesis.

But still, formats as pictorials have present many limitations : how can the layout design enhance the overall aesthetic and functional experience of getting the paper’s content? Is this format similar to the take-away section of a prior (referenced) paper. Then, is the pictorial format confined to be an illustrated case study, or the illustration of a previous paper? Does its restricted amount of text makes it dependent to older research work? Does it contribute to creating a trans-media research publication strategy for authors?

How to go beyond visuals when aesthetically presenting a design project, within a PhD thesis? I would suggest enhancing the reader (or PhD thesis jury) experience of the project, aside of the reading, thanks to:
• Photos, videos, website
• Postal shipped prototype
• Exhibition
• Defense as a performance
• Trans-media (combining the previous propositions)


Challenge 2: presenting a situated design project
There are 2 different agendas in a situated design projects (client/project agenda + peers/experiment agenda. I therefore propose two modes for presenting design project along a PhD thesis, using pictorials. Here follows the text description of the brainstorming picture above.


Pictorial Mode:
Here, project agenda and experiment agenda are separated to make the research contribution clearer. Imagine this section organization along the thesis manuscript:
• Expé abstract
—• Proj abstract
—• Proj context, demand, client
—• Proj work in progress, answer
—• Proj user test & results (for client)
• Expé related work, questions, hypo
• Expé méthode, protocol
• Expé factual findings
• Expé discussion

Annexed Reflection Mode:
Here the last section allows to reveal the dirty reality of the work in progress phase, and how it informed the making of the experiment. As shown in the picture, this is Inspired by Wendy Mackay triangulation across disciplines diagram ( example) (check also Samuel huron’s PhD thesis defense rework version). Imagine this section organization along the thesis manuscript:
• Expé abstract
• Expé related work, questions, hypo
• Expé méthode, protocol
—• Proj abstract
—• Proj answer
—• Proj user-test
• Expé factual findings
• Expé discussion here or later?
• Expé/Proj interwoven annexed reflection on how the design process influenced experiment adjustments

This last mode is describe in the next picture/brainstorming.
2016-03-02 18.10.35


Please, feel free to comment this blogpost, this is a work in progress. I will update this Discussion section later on.

• Wendy E. Mackay and Anne-Laure Fayard. 1997. HCI, natural science and design: a framework for triangulation across disciplines. In Proceedings of the 2nd conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques (DIS ’97), Susan Coles (Ed.). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 223-234. DOI=