Bachelor Thesis Log #01

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November 12th, 2012

As my studies continue towards their inevitable conclusion, I am once again faced with the situation of having to write a bachelor thesis some time soon-ish. I'm fortunate enough to have already written one of those, so it's not as much of a big unknown for me as it is for others (which doesn't mean that it's routine in any way either). I'm currently (and have been for a good couple of weeks, actually) in the process of brainstorming possible topics. By now I figure I'm not going to make any steps forward by twisting and turning stuff in my head over and over, so here I am late thursday night trying to put some of it into writing. I also thought I might as well involve y'all, since that seemed to work pretty well the first time around.

This time, though, I'll tentatively be writing in English, because in this line of academia you have to make the transition to English at some point, thus why wait?

For those of you not quite in the loop, here's the basic situation: I'm currently at the tail end of a dual curriculum involving the Bachelor of Science in Human-Computer-Interaction and the Master of Science in Computer Science (“Informatik”), so I actually have to write two final theses. They could be somehow connected or they might be completely distinct, that's up for me to decide. I'll be focusing on the bachelor thesis first and foremost.

At my department at the University of Hamburg, a bachelor thesis should be adequately completed in three months of full-time work (which might be changing to five months, or so I've heard). The clock typically does not start ticking until the topic of the thesis has been clarified, often in the form of a written exposé. The first challenge, thus, is to find a suitable topic.

Personal Interest

Obviously, my personal interests are the biggest and most important factor and dictate my specialization in the field. Viewed through the lense of project planning, this is a question of motivation first and foremost. A bachelor thesis is something that you have to persistently work on, literally for months, and from my experience it rarely leaves your mental focus. I know that if I had to write a bachelor thesis on a topic that isn't interesting to me, that I don't feel passionate about, it would just destroy me. That could just be me, I'm sure some people manage to do it. But I don't have that kind of stubborn persistence to give 110% for a single creative work over several months if I can not feel passionate about it. It's vitally important to me that I can write my bachelor thesis on a topic that I actually find interesting.

Flashback: My last thesis in 2010 was about “teachlets,” a method for facilitating software design education, to which I was exposed in a seminar and which left a lasting imprint. I was so fascinated by the concept that I asked its originator, Axel Schmolitzky, to supervise my bachelor thesis on that same topic. He was a bit apprehensive, because he didn't know whether the task we devised for me would lead to a well-rounded bachelor thesis, and he actually offered me a number of “easy ways out”: more precise and controlled lower-risk topics with a higher base chance of success. I chose to take the risk, and my final grades indeed ended up reflecting the truth that my findings did not lead to an outstanding bachelor thesis (it certainly wasn't bad, but also not as good as other things I've done). It did, however, make a lasting contribution to the teachlet community and Axel did not hesitate to attest its scientific value. I'm proud to say that I regret nothing.

Since some time in 2008 or 2009, I've had a heightened interest in Human-Computer-Interaction, usability and related areas. My first bachelor thesis had very little to do with those things, so I promised myself that the next one would definitely be grounded there. Since then, I have specialized my courses appropriately and I have been active in our HCI group, mostly as a student assistant helping with the teaching. I've had time to better familiarize myself with the field and I've begun to stake out areas that I find very interesting versus areas that tend to bore me.

The concepts of usability and user experience are, upon close inspection, still so new and ill-defined that they help very little in narrowing down the whole field of HCI. At their core, these words refer to a common-sense understanding that there have to be some reasons why certain systems are more efficient, easier and more pleasurable to use by a human than others. Research questions in this area range from the deepest depths of psychology (what kinds of tasks are our minds able to handle well, how does work satisfaction arise?) to mechanistic, data-driven evaluations that are not so very different from determining the computational complexity of any algorithm without human components. The fascination that arises from the interaction of these contrasting viewpoints is actually one of the influences that originally lured me in. I would love it if my upcoming bachelor thesis could make a contribution to existing knowledge on how to make computing more accessible and less intimidating for more people around the world.

In contrast, the topic of games and play is one that kind of snuck up on me. The UX community at large has had a bit of a focal shift in recent years, away from the traditional central question of “How can we make all this less of a hassle and annoyance?” to “How can we make this more of a pleasurable and rewarding experience?” Perspectives like Don Norman's Emotional Design caused a rising number of usability professionals to ponder concepts like fun. From that angle, games seemed like a logical thing to investigate, and before I really knew what was happening, I was reading books about game design. I maintain that I'm not interested in becoming a professional game designer or ludulogist, but I fancy myself moderately well-versed in the principles, particularly regarding engagement, motivation, and fun. I don't expect to design/develop a game, but if this knowledge happens to somehow fit into my bachelor thesis, all the better!

Lasting Relevance

Usually, a bachelor thesis does not contain groundbreaking research. There are exceptions of course. Even if it does not warrant publishing the results in a scientific journal, the thesis may still offer some scientific relevance, or it may not. If a bachelor thesis is written in close contact with a company, for example, it is often highly specialized work that is not interesting for anyone outside that company – although, again, there are exceptions to this.

In any case, I would like my bachelor thesis to have as much relevance to the scientific community as possible. I've never published a paper before, but I would very much like that to happen before the end of my studies. It's not a requirement (especially since these things can not be 100% predicted), but as far as I can influence it, I plan on doing so.

Aside from the scientific relevance, I would also love to create something that other people can build upon and make use of. Something useful, in short.

What Now?

In any case, the work has to fit within the allotted timeframe. Other than that, I need a supervisor, a role for which, given my preferred topics, only one person at the department really qualifies: the current professor for HCI. In fact, I'll be talking about my ideas with him tomorrow.

I anticipate that I'll return to a weekly schedule with these reports at some point, though possibly not right from the beginning. For now, I'll write one of these whenever there are enough news to warrant it. I hope that you'll be with me again and I'll see you around!


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