A platform to connect communication design students with research topics.


User experience design, web development

Project info

Commissioned by RMIT's Master of Communication Design program. View platform

The challenge

Students in creative fields often struggle to adopt practice-led research. As a conceptual framework, practice-led research allows researchers to use their creative practice, methods and output as the research. The challenge was to explore ways to support the understanding of this framework and provide academic staff with a platform to have more impactful conversations through exemplars. Furthermore, the business case for the platform was to promote design pedagogy to the wider university.

A day in a life in the studio with Dennis and Kim. Image © Travis Tianxiao She.

The approach

Meeting early with key stakeholders, the program manager and lecturers provided an understanding of the business goals and constraints. Together we identified risks and aligned expectations to construct a shared vision of the product as a teaching tool.

I facilitated a kickoff meeting with the Program Manager and program lecturers to define the business goals, product goals, users, constraints, risks and timelines.

Contextual inquiry

Throughout the discovery phase, I conducted a contextual inquiry to understand the workarounds students used to conduct their research, their interactions and shifting needs over the course of their projects. I also interviewed academics to see the workarounds they employed when teaching and the common barriers they see students face. (Photos by Travis Tianxiao She)

Early insights from the field

Students felt that traditional desktop research, both online and through library resources were time-consuming with no guarantee of relevance to their projects. The experience was akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

Search approaches differ due to the variety of interests among students. Some search by medium, some be discipline, some by the style of work, and some by subject matter of work. This insight revealed the necessity for students to be able to conduct research laterally. This would be especially helpful for students who have yet to define their research topics.

Students often gravitated towards visual references. However, these references often lacked contextual information. Rarely is work presented within the context of a case study. The same is true for academic papers, where many will lack visual references.

How might we make research quick and relevant?

How might we enable users to explore interests laterally?

How might we best tell the story of a projects research process?

Introducing the Master of Communication Research Portal

A platform that helps students navigate their design research interests. Users can enter keywords, bibliography and criteria based on their areas of interest and view exemplars of previous research projects. The tool also helps teachers to quickly reference projects to discuss approaches and best practices.

Matching research stories with users interests

Summaries allow users to quickly determine the relevance of the project for their research.

Survey the literature

Bibliography references enable users to explore the literature by topic or author and make lateral connections.

The framework

Combing through the research and brainstorming the different solutions to pain points allowed me to come up with a broad set of critical tasks–quickly. I categorised and segmented the tasks into behavioural preferences which gave me a way to prototype the features and content that would be useful.

Mapping the critical tasks based on user's goals allowed me to prioritise features for the first release

Early prototypes

During the ideation phase, I explored several concepts that ultimately failed. For example, a concept that displayed split-screen search results. After testing it was apparent that this made it difficult to identify summaries with the accompanying images.

The pivot

To give users more control go deeper into the search, each result item needed to have relational links. After mapping all the key metrics of the ideal search experience, the solution was to create an interface that could contain the results with abstracts, bibliography, keywords and images. This reduced the cognitive load, increased speed of use and made the content more scannable.


The MCommdes research platform launched in August 2019. While still in its early days, the platform will serve as a valuable promotional tool for the Master of Communication Design program and the wider university. It will also act as an ever-growing archive of student achievements. As new projects come on board, the school anticipates an increase in awareness around design pedagogy. More importantly, we hope to see improved support for students navigating their projects for the first time.