Research – did you start with a problem?

How did you end up choosing the topic you’re researching? Was it that you had a problem and you wanted to find a solution? Or did you have an idea, that you then decided could be a solution for some problem? And if it was the second case, was the problem real or imaginary? By this I mean, did the problem exist, and were people trying to find a solution to it before you came up with yours? Or did you have to define a problem, such that your ‘solution’is a solution?

While I think the best approach is to start with a problem, I don’t even think my research falls neatly into that category. What I’m working on right now, sort of happened in a roundabout way. I started by working on x, during which we discovered a problem with y, which started us down our current path. It’s part of a solution to y. But, in order to “sell it” when we try to publish it, we frame it more as a solution to z. With z being a current problem in the industry we’re researching, but our solution being a focused solution to a subset of z. (Were you able to follow that? I’ve added a figure to hopefully help.)

I started with Problem X, discovered Problem Y, crafted a solution that helps solve Problems X and Y, and also a larger problem Z.

Anyway, the benefit of starting with a problem, is that it’s much easier to sell your solution and to convince people that your solution has merit. Especially if it’s a problem that’s well accepted to be a problem. Also, if it’s an existing problem, you’re probably not the only person who is actively trying to find a solution. While other researcherscan be a problem (you might get scooped) it also means there’s research to compare your results agains – some state of the art to “beat.”

If it’s not a problem, and you start with a solution, you’re starting off in a much harder place. First of all, you now need to convince people that thereis some sort of problem that your solution solves. Then, you need to convince people that the problem is important, and that people should care that you have a solution. There are problems out there where people are happy enough with the current solutions. And to convince them that you’re solution is worth looking at is difficult. That’s not to say it’s not worth it, just that it can be a much harder road to travel.

Think about the mouse and keyboard. There wasn’t always a mouse and keyboard. In fact, at the beginning there were lots of different types of devices invented for inputting information. The mouse and keyboard won back then. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the solution for ten years from now. And, if you look around, it’s becoming pretty clear that touch screens are being seen as a larger part of a new solution. But touch screens have also been around for over a decade (think Smart technologies), including multi-touch gestures. But it’s only been quite recently that they’ve really started to catch on. Part of this is that a lot of people don’t see any problem with the keyboard and mouse, and convincing them to try something new has been difficult. Why change when the mouse and keyboard are good enough?

It is worth knowing how your research came about (solution to problem or solution without a problem). This information will help you figure out how to “sell” your research when you’re trying to convince others it’s important. It’ll also help you determine who the market is for your solution.

So where does your research fall? Or is it like mine and doesn’t have an easy explanation?


2 thoughts on “Research – did you start with a problem?

  1. UGH! this hit home. I keep a notepad of all the thesis, projects, papers and research I want to do. Some seem like better projects, then a thesis, then just a small paper… Ive been trying to decide WHAT to do for the past year!

    • I use to joke that I was a “jack of all trades, master of none.” I find the hardest thing about Grad school can often be just limiting your research. There’s so much cool stuff out there that I want to do and learn about, there just isn’t enough hours in the day.

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