Straight-A Shortcut

  • Who: Teams of 2-3
  • Objectives: Research


In lieu of all other grading categories, a successful attempt at the Straight-A Shortcut will ensure you have an A in the class. Should you choose to accept the Straight-A Shortcut challenge, that means you do not have to complete any other assignments or even attend the lecture if you do not wish (although I don't recommend it, the lectures contain helpful content!)

The Straight-A Shortcut involves writing a publication-quality paper. Successful projects will be submitted to the visualization conference EuroVis (deadline in December). You learn so much in the process of research, and this can be a really valuable experience if your group is up for it. This must take place with your project group. So if this is something you are interested to pursue this semester, do consider choosing your project group accordingly.

If you want to pursue the Straight-A Shortcut, talk to the instructor and TAs early and often! When in doubt, ask questions.

Why Straight-A Shortcut?

I am a big advocate for the value of research -- even failed research! The process can be transformative to the way you think about and approach problems.

This is risky! I do not recommend the Straight-A Shortcut for everyone! Who should consider this route?

  • Graduate students
  • Undergraduate students who want to attend graduate school
  • Students who want to publish
  • Students who want to explore visualization research
  • Students who are willing to put in hard work
  • Students who are comfortable to self-manage their time and set internal milestones


Your deliverable at the end of the semester will be a paper that is ready to submit to EuroVis. Pay attention to the required deadlines for abstract and full paper submissions. You are responsible for ensuring that you follow submission requirements and meet the deadline.

That being said, you are not on your own! The TAs and I want to help you maximize your chances of success.

  • Before you choose the Straight-A Shortcut, you must indicate your intention to the instructor and the TAs by mid-September at the latest.
  • You must schedule check ins with the instructor and TAs on a biweekly basis, so we can provide feedback and guidance. Note: each biweekly update should consist of meeting slides to communicate your progress -- consider dividing it up into (1) what you have been working on, (2) what you are stuck on or struggling with, and (3) what you need help with.
  • We will make ourselves available to discuss project ideas, research value, project pacing, paper outlines, provide feedback on written drafts, etc. Write early and often. The more you take us up on the opportunity for feedback, the better off you'll be!

If you are not confident you will be able to put in the necessary work, you will likely want to hedge your bet and ensure your grade will not suffer by working on the other assigned coursework. Your findings need not necessarily be groundbreaking, but rushed efforts that result in 10 pages of rambly writing will not constitute a successful attempt at the Straight-A Shortcut!

Research Overview

To write a research paper, you first need to have a reasonable sense of what constitutes research! Below are some steps you will want to think through. Your paper will need to address these in some fashion.

Define a problem: What is a problem? Whose problem is it? (researchers, practitioners, industry, government, everyone?)

Come up with a solution: What are existing solutions? How well do they work? Do we need a new solution? Why?

Demonstrate effectiveness: Evaluation involves demonstrating that the solution works on the problem. How to evaluation depends on the problem statement. If the problem is that an algorithm is slow, demonstrate that your solution shows quantitative improvement. If the problem is that a domain user cannot do X effectively, show (in a qualitative study) that your solution helps the user do X easily. One option to consider for evaluation is “A nested model for visualization design and validation”, Tamara Munzner, TVCG, 2009.

So what? Perhaps the hardest part of doing research is to answer the question of “so what.” Connected to the “identify problem” consideration. In some cases, the “so what” is self-evident. For example, if you built a tool to help a domain user do X more effectively, your “so what” depends on: How many of these domain users are there? How important is X (and doing X well)? How often do they use your tool? But other times, the “so what” is less obvious… Consider “The Value of Visualization”, Jarke van Wijk. IEEE VIS, 2005.

  • Suppose you developed a tool to help one doctor visualize gene data: (i) this doctor ended up finding a cure for cancer using your tool, (ii) this doctor used your tool and wrote a paper based on the result, (iii) this doctor used your tool to generate an image for a paper
  • Suppose you wrote a library to make programming visualizations easier: (i) most visualizations in the world are built using your library (e.g. d3), (ii) you used your library to start a company (e.g. plotly), (iii) you wrote a paper, but adoption never took off (e.g. infovis toolkit)
The point is, the “so what” isn’t always obvious.

Writing a paper: you need to make it clear to the reviewer “why” your work is relevant. Practical Impact: for your own purpose, before you embark on a research project, understand why you are doing what you’re doing.


Visualization Conferences:

Visualization Research:

How to Read a Paper:

How to Review a Paper:

How to Write a Paper:

How to Give a Presentation:

Resources courtesy of Topics in Data Visualization at Harvard from Johanna Beyer


Successful completion of the Staight-A Shortcut means you will finish the semester with an A in the course, regardless of your performance (or lack thereof) on other assignments. However, work that is incomplete (e.g., the system you built doesn't work, or the evaluation was not completed) or clearly thrown together (e.g., the paper is unintelligible and lacks any semblance of consultation with the instructor or TAs) will not be eligible for the Straight-A Shortcut. Your research need not be successful per se (e.g., you may fail to find a sigfnificant difference in your evaluation), but it should be the result of concerted efforts.