[Illustrating Research & Creativity #3] “What is ‘Contribution’? How to Do Research?” Part 3/3 — Pushing the Edge (step-by-step)

My name is Ken Nakagaki, a PhD Student at the MIT Media Lab. In this blog series ‘Illustrating Research & Creativity,’ I describe concepts and methodologies that I found interesting through my research experience using simple diagrams and illustration.

This is the third part of the serial post “What is ‘Contribution’? How to Do Research?”.

In Part 1 and Part 2, I have described ‘what academic contributions are’ and ‘how you should position your research’ using simple illustrations.

In this post, I will guide you step-by-step about how you actually push the edge to clarify your contribution from a bigger picture — based on illustrations of Part 1 and 2. (So please check them first if you haven’t!

*Again, this series of posts is intended for junior students who are new to research.

0. Define your Area of Interest

First and foremost, among the big picture of human knowledge of circle or dome, you would define your area of interest — this can be a certain research area, field, or topic.

Ok, have you zoomed-in? Does it look like this? …or

1. Make a Clear View of the ‘Edge’

Especially when you are a newbie to a certain field, it should look like below.

It is likely to look blurred for you to ‘clearly see the edge’ — the borderline that separates ‘what has been done’ vs ‘what has not’.

To make this clear, you need to do a ‘survey’. You need to collect previous knowledge ideas or concepts within that.

In my case, because I’d love to influence beyond the field of HCI domain with new concepts for interaction design, I often do collect and archive ideas beyond the HCI research field, including design, arts, or even SciFi.

I often use Pinterest to do so — a great and useful tool to collect ideas efficiently and visually. I’ve made several boards public for your reference.

Having a clear and crisp view of this edge is the most important process when start research. It is almost like getting a new pair of glasses to have a clear view of the edge. Otherwise, you can have a hard time coming up with research ideas that are outside the edge.

Additionally, this edge constantly moves forward, so you do need to catch up with the latest research all the time.

2. Position your Research outside the edge

Then, you can start plotting your research idea — the dot (as in Part 2.

Then, you may zoom in further.

The simple criteria here is that the dot should be placed clearly outside the edge (or the dome).

Depending on your idea, even when the dot seemed to be within the circle from the top view, it could be above the dome when looked at from the side view in the Z-axis (the VERTICAL deploy axis, as in Part 1). In that sense, you may better constantly look at the relationship of dots and edge from different perspectives spatially, to analyze the axis of your contribution.

Additionally, when you zoom in, you may still find the edge blurred — being unclear if the dot is really outside the edge or not. In that case, you may need further surveys to make it even crisper. Surveys and coming up with research ideas is often a repetitive process.

3. Capture the trends and context at the edge

Now once your research is placed outside the edge, you need to analyze the trends or contexts within the edge.

What types of research have been done before? What are the on-going trends in the close fields?

Depending on your research you may find several streams of research that would support your research idea. This is often something you will write in your paper as related work — or literature survey.

4. Clarify your Contribution

Then, you can clarify the contribution your research would make along with the trends. How did your research ‘dot’ push the edge of human knowledge? what does the new edge look like?

These ‘gaps’ are the contributions.

To clarify this, questions to you would be like;

What are you adding to the field?

How is ‘the edge’ pushed with your research?

5. What is the new possible research space?

Accordingly, with the new edge your research created, there can be new research opportunities for other researchers.

You can ask yourself like;

What are the new opportunities created with your research?

How can other researchers learn from it and extend beyond?

What is the generalizable knowledge/framework/lesson?


That’s it. (At least, that is what I try to see as a paper reviewer.


This illustration doesn’t, of course, capture the detailed contents of the paper, especially how the research itself should be conveyed and structured — and that, I will write/illustrate in the next post.

Thank you for reading! Happy to hear questions or comments through my Twitter.

*You are welcome to share my diagrams and writings as long as you credit me, Ken Nakagaki, and link to this blog post.

*All my diagrams and writings are under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Interaction Designer and HCI Researcher in MIT Media Lab