The researcher's guide to life, the universe, and everything

Welcome to our group! This guide will help you understand how we think about research, how we go about doing it, and how we make each other smarter.

Research mentality

Together, our group aims to make each other the best researchers possible, and to constantly learn and adapt. Succeeding in doing research with me is a simple formula: generate many ideas, and channel excitement effectively to execute them.

Generate many ideas

If you trust Nobel Prize winners more than you trust me, try Linus Pauling: "If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas." Imagine your own creativity as being normally distributed. If you want to have a killer idea — two or three sigma above the mean — you need to generate enough ideas that the Law of Large Numbers kicks in.

The corollary: do not be critical of your ideas. This is incredibly hard for researchers to do. I have seen graduate students kill their own great insights one too many times. Instead, view it as part of a process. As Ira Glass put it:

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish [something important]. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's gonna take awhile. It's normal to take awhile. You've just gotta fight your way through."

I will push us to iterate rapidly. Rather than scoping out a huge project and then digging at it for weeks or months, I will push us to find the core element and prototype it as rapidly as possible. Check out my slides on research velocity for a deeper dive on this.

Channel energy to execute

Amorphous amounts of "hard work" are not what generate impactful results. Instead, it's about bringing energy and excitement to what you do. That means finding problems that you and I think are going to change the world. Harness that energy to drive your research. Be prepared to dig back into that original motivation if you get stuck, and use it to power through. I promise that I will not work with you on any project that I am not ready to dedicate incredible amounts of energy and excitement to, and I ask that you do the same. Be reflective: if you notice yourself slowing down, talk to me! This means that the motivation is slipping, and it usually indicates a problem with how we've oriented the research process, not a problem with you. Tell me in our next meeting, and we will step back and figure out how to change course, together.

Group culture

Our group culture is engaged and positive. Engaged means that we work hard to make each other better researchers. Positive means that we frame critiques, questions and suggestions so that the recipient leaves each meeting more excited about their project than when they entered.

Be engaged, be positive. 'Nuff said.

Your time commitments

I take your time very seriously. I ask more structured time commitments of you than many faculty. However, I work hard to organize the commitments so that your time investment brings big benefits to you and to the group. If you feel that an element of the schedule is underperforming, tell me! I am always experimenting.

The schedule you need to commit to:

  1. Project meetings with Michael in Michael's office, Gates 384. This is where we go deep on your project.
    Typical schedule: one meeting (45min) each week. Some students prefer meeting more often; I'm happy to schedule that if you are making the right kind of progress.
  2. On-demand meetings: if you want to get some additional thoughts or feedback, feel free to grab any slot on my calendar available at! I like it when people do this — any time you don't reserve will get reserved by administrative, non-research meetings instead, and yours are more fun!
  3. Group workshops: these are all-day workshops every other month where our group goes deep on the projects we're doing, brainstorming, and critique. Watch your email for workshop announcements sent to
  4. HCI lunch: Wednesday noon–1pm, Gates 104. All CS HCI researchers, not just my group. Free lunch!
  5. HCI seminar (academic year only): talk 11:30am–12:30pm in Gates B01, lunch with the speaker Fridays 12:30–1:30pm in the Gates Library. Have lunch with the speaker! PhD students: watch the email lists and meet with every speaker who comes through the HCI seminar, even if it's unrelated to your research. This is how you meet the people who will later be talking about your research and hiring you as a professor.

Getting started


If you are a visiting or rotating PhD student, masters student, or undergraduate, make sure you do all of these:

  1. Subscribe to the list by filling out this form. This is all of Michael's group members.
  2. Subscribe to the list by filling out this second form. This list is for all the CS HCI researchers, not just Michael's group.
  3. Join the Stanford HCI+Graphics Slack org. Make sure you subscribe to the #students-msb, #announcements, #general, and #slack-overflow channels, as well as any channels for your project. Installing the Slack desktop client will make sure you get any notifications. We often use Slack for quick chats and questions.
  4. Subscribe to the Stanford HCI Google Calendar for all lunches, talks and other events. Use the iCal feed to do so. In Google Calendar, here are instructions for adding it; use as the email address.
  5. If you will be involved in a project that is deployed to users or runs a user study, do Stanford's IRB training to learn about ethical treatment of research participants. Go to the CITI web site and take the course for "Group 2: IRB Nonmedical Research".

PhD students

Rotation students and visiting students: there are a few other perks I'd like to get you set up with. First, the HCI Group has a Dropbox org — if you're going to be aligning with the HCI Group somewhere, ping a faculty member about joining it so you get more space. Second, we have a GitHub org. Ping a more senior PhD student in the group to get added as an admin to our GitHub org. You can use it for your research repos. Third, the faculty here are generally happy to pay for items that make your work environment better. Ergonomics (e.g., chairs, keyboard trays, keyboards) and hardware (e.g., monitors, mice) are fair game. If you need a laptop or machine to work on, also ask for that. Just prep a request list (ideally on Amazon) and let us know.

Masters and undergrads

In addition to the above, to succeed in research, you need to be able to dedicate significant time to it. (See #2: Channel energy to execute.) Each unit at Stanford is roughly three hours of work per week outside of class/meetings. Making this concrete: for my group, you need to be willing to dedicate at least four "units" of time to it in a given quarter. I am very happy to support research for credit if you'd like this reflected in your transcript!


All I can add is: the most successful CURIS students do not view themselves as code monkeys. They actively question, contribute, and add their own ideas to the project. You are the most promising student in your cohort; that's why we chose you. Add your voice and energy to the project!

Once you're ready...