Writing a Synopsis for a Bachelor, Master or PhD Thesis in Media and Computer Science

The development of ‘Balance Of Power’ reminds me if the use of paratroops in WW2. After much trial and error, the strategists eventually learned that the real value of paratroops lay in their powers to motivate regular troops to fight to rescue the paras. Its difficult to inspire soldiers to risk their lives to win a patch of ground, but when they know that their comrades are just ahead, surrounded by the enemy, counting on the regular troops to save them, the regular troops will fight with unparalleled determination. Paratroops, then, allow the commander to set a clear and tough goal for his troops to reach. Using paratroops is like putting yourself in a deep hole to see if you can dig yourself out of it.
Chris Crawford, «Balance Of Power»

At the university I work for, students have to write a synopsis prior to the start of their bachelor or masters thesis. It’s got a particular structure:

  1. Motivation/Goal of the Thesis
  2. Research Questions (only needed for a Masters Thesis)
  3. Scenarios
    1. Starting Scenario
    2. Goal Scenario
  4. Approach / Time Table
  5. Literature

To be honest, the differentiation in starting scenario and goal scenario is already a clarification. It’s not fleshed out in the usual template, so many students miss it. I would also add the following tips:

General issues about writing a synopsis:

Planning of the human-centered design process: The synopsis covers the first step of the human-centered design process — the planning stage. You determine what you want to develop using a HCD process.

The synopsis determine the evaluation criteria — for your work: There’s a reason for the quote at the beginning of this posting. The synopsis determines the standard by which your work will be evaluated. It states clearly what you have promised, and it will be compared against what you have achieved. So invest some thought into what you actually write down. Your advisors will remember … it’s written down, after all … and they will grade you accordingly. Don’t shot yourself in the leg, don’t promise anything you cannot (realistically) achieve.

Open Issues vs. Outlook: In our theses, there are two distinct sections. Open Issues vs. Outlook (future research). Open issues is what you did promise but could not achieve. This section should be as short as possible. And then there is the outlook or future research, things you did find out during your work which would be interesting to explore. That can be longer. Just make sure you deliver what you did promise. The old adage applies here: Under-promise but over-deliver.

Write so I can see you: The synopsis is the first work with which to evaluate whether a person can already write for a mature audience, or whether this person has to learn a lot. Few if any students write well (even though many think they do, oh sweet summer children …). Thing is, it’s a process, so yeah, use the opportunity to take the feedback to your writing seriously. If there are problems with your synopsis, these problems will be — unless actively addressed (you’re too old for it to be a fluke) — in your thesis text. And this applies to the style, the use of sources, and your argumentation. If you speak German, perhaps this video might be useful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ID7q7pXzyc

Ad 1: Motivation/Goal of the Thesis

Answers the most important question: This section answers the crucial question: “Why should I care?”. You need to met the reader where he is and show (not just tell) why the problem is important and why your product should be developed with a human-centered development process. And to go deeper into the “show (not just tell)” issue — almost all cases in which people mention that something is “important”, it really isn’t. If it is, you don’t have to mention it. People see it based on the overall situation. So, show, don’t just tell.

State of the Art: This is actually something that is dealt with quite differently depending on the advisor. Given that it is part of the introduction, I think the state of the art should only include what you did get before starting with the thesis. Once you do an analysis — e.g., search in databases — it’s an active, creative process. Then it should be in the analysis, because other people might act differently. So, in my view, the state of the art should only include an existing system for which you do — e.g., develop another module. But there are different perspectives. Some people see the results of a literature/app research here.

State of the research: In contrast to the mere technology (caveat: I’m a psychologist) the underlying theories you are going to use. E.g., which psychological theories will you use to influence the target behavior? What are the overall goals? The work will continue iteratively and does contain creative elements, but the overall goal should remain the same, so what is known about it? You should state the goal quite clearly, e.g., developing an application which allows every citizen to get a clear view on how much money the government spends on which projects.

Ad 2: Research Questions (only needed for a Masters Thesis)

This section can be removed for Bachelor theses.

In a master’s thesis, clear research questions which the master’s thesis will answer. Specific questions, and you should be damn sure you can answer those questions, you will be graded by how well you can answer them.


Master’s Thesis about User Modeling in Ability-Based Design:

  1. How does a user model look like when abilities (instead of disabilities) are considered?
  2. Which parameters are required for an ability-based perspective and how can they be assessed?
  3. What are the differences of user modeling of abilities compared with other user models?

Master’s Thesis about Designing for Dyslexic People:

  1. Which commonalities and differences exist in the laws and design guidelines for developing accessible websites in different countries?
  2. Are those guidelines sufficient for specific user groups, e.g., dyslexic people?
  3. Which enhancements to the current guidelines would support dyslexic people?

Master’s Thesis about a Catastrophe and Neighborly-Help-App:

  1. How must a catastrophe app be designed to achieve a high acceptance prior to a crisis?
  2. Which smart city innovations can be used with a crisis-support-app?

Master’s Thesis to develop a competitive Learning App with Moodle:

  1. How can the learning success when preparing for written exams be positively influenced via a competitive learning app?
  2. Can a learning app be used to change extrinsic to intrinsic motivation?

Ad 3: Scenarios

The scenario section is used to provide some life to the rather abstract goals: Students describe two conditions, first without the developed solution. Just how does the situation present itself now.  Then how could the situation look like when the app is implemented. Just provide a vivid scenario of how the world looks like. Something vivid but realistic. And if you have different user groups, describe the goal scenario for those different user groups.

Ad 4: Approach / Time Table

Now it gets to how you will achieve that goal: Just decide for an overall development strategy (e.g., an human-centered design process according to DIN EN ISO 9241-210, or scenario-based design, or whatever). Describe what you will do in each phase.

Details of the time table: Sure, a time table is fiction, but it still helps to check whether the project is actually doable. Just jot down how much time you will need for the analysis, conceptual phase, realization (programming! *gasp* it has to compile *gasp^2*), evaluation and actually finishing writing the damn thing. Schedule buffer time.

Realistic time plan: Consider the time periods during the next (usually six months) during which you will be occupied by something else, be it vacation, exams, or whatever. And no, people usually don’t work during xmas or exams.

Availability of the user groups: You need actual users to get accurate feedback. Usually during the analysis, formative evaluation and summative evaluation time periods. Check wether they are actually available. Evaluating a learning app for students during the semester break is rather difficult, and there are time during which most of the people in a country take their vacation.

When to officially start your thesis: If you have any influence on when to start the actual work period (usually limited to six months), do not start it during the time from mid-December to the start of January. Not much if any work will be done during that time. And if you get sick during your thesis, make sure you check whether you can get that time added to your thesis. Usually that’s possible, if you take the time to actually inform the right people about it.

Ad 5: Literature

At my university, we use the APA standard, i.e., the citation standard of the American Psychological Association. Of course, you’ll only cite the literature you have actually used in your synopsis, and to cite it, a literature manager is really helpful. Personally, I like Zotero. Just make sure you add all the required information (you need to know which information actually is required, strangely enough, Zotero does not complain if something is missing, it just follows the old Garbage in — Garbage Out rule (GIGO). So make damn sure you have added the necessary information. And yeah, Zotero also works with Word and other apps.


In the text it’s ASSERTION (Brandstätter, Schüler, Puca, & Lozo, 2013)

In the Reference list it’s:

Brandstätter, V., Schüler, J., Puca, R. M., & Lozo, L. (2013). Motivation und Emotion. Springer-Verlag.

(As a heuristic, the stuff you see on the spine — of books or of bound journal/conference papers — is in italics.)

Or for a journal paper:

In the test it’s: ASSERTION (Franke, Attig, & Wessel, 2019)

In the reference list it’s:

Franke, T., Attig, C., & Wessel, D. (2019). A Personal Resource for Technology Interaction: Development and Validation of the Affinity for Technology Interac-tion (ATI) Scale. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 35(6), 456–467. https://doi.org/10.1080/10447318.2018.1456150

Final Remarks

So, that’s it for a thesis synopsis. For a bachelor or master’s thesis, the synopsis takes around 3 toi 6 back and forth between the student and the advisor. For a PhD thesis … it takes about a year to really nail down what you want to examine (and how).

Research takes some time, but it shouldn’t take too much time.

As usual, constructive feedback and questions are greatly appreciated.

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