Reflections on Steps to a Master's Thesis Proposal - Part 2
Updated: May 2, 2022
Writing an academic research proposal for a master's was not easy, and it did not end up as I expected it to. Now I’m reflecting on and sharing what happened for me. This is part 2 of 3. You can see part 1 here and part 3 here.
I had explored how usability and user experience design could be applied to bike planning to design for how everyday people feel while riding a bike. I had developed the Bicycle User Experience (BUX) concept and a blog, and then after some time, I had started a master's program in the Netherlands. In a country where cycling is widespread, I thought it would be a great opportunity to research how BUX methods could be used in practice. However, I struggled to translate this into a research proposal.
Something that I had thought about while developing the concept and writing the bachelor’s thesis was about its political potential to bring about change towards biking for everyone. Its ability to do this, I thought, would come through focusing on people and making cycling relevant to their lives. However, at the time I hadn't fully articulated and written these thoughts out.
Returning to the master's thesis, after several weeks of unsuccessfully attempting to hammer down a solid academic base, I felt stuck. It was like I was banging my head against a wall. Was I going to be able to turn my idea of further developing the BUX methods to fit them in a planner's workflow into a feasible academic research project? I saw it as the next step towards actually enabling the BUX approach in practice, and as the mental struggles persisted, I questioned myself. What actually is this Bicycle User Experience thing? Is it a real, legitimate enough idea to work with for a master's thesis? What is my goal with this, what am I really trying to accomplish?
The thought about the political potential to move towards biking for everyone came back to me- why did I think BUX could be a solution for this and how could it make it happen? I tried to really think this through and articulate it, eventually coming up with a flowchart (note: "infra" means infrastructure):
I needed to talk to someone, so I sent the flowchart over to a person researching cycling experience. I essentially asked: Does this make any sense? Is it a huge stretch, totally unrealistic? The person didn't dismiss it though, and their feedback was not negative. A human-centered process could possibly bring value, in different ways than other approaches to working on projects. Great, I thought! This may have potential. But what implications does it have for my thesis?
In the following weeks, the thesis topic began to zoom out from methods to the process level. And it moved from a narrow focus on cycling towards urban planning at large. My topic had changed significantly, yet at the same time my proposal was finally moving along.
Note: for fun, the person asked me to keep thinking and make an opposite version of this logic in which cycling decreases. So, I made one trying to explain the current attempts on bike planning that are centered around traffic engineering logic: