In Their Own Words: Pair Research

I recently met with McCormick and School of Communication professors Haoqi Zhang and Liz Gerber to discuss their new platform Pair Research, whose development was funded through a Provost's Digital Learning Fellowship. Listening back to the recording of our interview, it occurred to me that the story of Pair Research and the path to launch was best told by the experts themselves. So, without further ado, here it is in their own words…


The Pair Research platform simplifies the process of asking for and receiving help. The platform provides a digital space where a community can form around a project. When a member of the community encounters a problem in their work that they need help with, they type in a request for help and other community members respond, rating their ability to help on a scale of one to five. A matching algorithm then recommends the most optimal pairings for collaboration, allowing work to move forward more quickly as experts are paired with the person who needs help.

Haoqi: “Pair Research is a process and tool, something that together we call a socio-technical system, for people to come together and help each other by pairing experts within and across communities. The platform launched January 1st and it’s open to anyone at

“We [Liz and I] use it every week in both our interdisciplinary research lab, which is called the Delta Lab, and within our undergraduate and graduate research programs. For us, it's been a way to connect students across projects, teams, and even research areas to be able to help each other.

“The students are using Pair Research to help resolve blockers that could be things like: I have a problem with my technology; I need someone to take a look at my research arguments or do user testing of a design element… it can be a variety of things.

“We're also seeing some early successes beyond Northwestern. So far we've had users testing it at the University of Washington and a research group in Korea at KAIST using it actively on a weekly basis to help their students collaborate and learn from each other.

“Having this platform now is enabling us to say to anyone who can benefit from this new form of collaboration within their lab or community that you can create your own groups, invite your own members, and run your own pair research pool.”


Haoqi: “The way the Pair Research system works is that you enter your problem and specify what it is you need help with. Then other people rate how well they could help you. The system creates a ‘help graph’ of who can help whom with what and automatically creates parings where people who can best help each other are matched together. The system then makes globally optimal pairings in the sense that it's best distributing the expertise we have within that community.

“There’s two interesting things that happen in the way the platform runs.

“One of the things is if you think about having faculty and students in this community, faculty are often the scarce resource, so to speak. Students who need help on things that other students can help them on may get paired with that other student, but if they have a request that a faculty member is more likely to be able to help answer, they have a better chance at getting paired with the faculty member. We're really leveraging every ounce of expertise we have within our community to resolve everyone's problems.

Interface for managing the pair research pool

“The other piece of this is that the system intentionally does not make perfect pairings. It purposefully skews the pairing so that if you and I paired recently it will purposely try to pair other people with us. The intention is that even though, myopically speaking, the best thing is if the people who could best help each other right now are paired, really what we want are for skills and abilities to be distributed within the network so that we're building competencies across the community. Over time, this increases our help-giving capacity as more people learn things from others and can now become helpers.”

Liz: “There's a third interesting thing that happens regarding perspective. Pair Research encourages you to meet up with people who have different perspectives than you. Research suggests you’re more likely to come up with a unique insight or idea if you talk with such people.”


Liz: “Like most innovations, a lot of different people in different locations were working on a similar idea at the same time. When we found out we were all working together, we decided to work together. I was working on a whiteboard and marker version of this in my lab before Haoqi started at Northwestern. It turns out, at the same time Haoqi and his colleague Rob Miller were doing something similar using spreadsheets at MIT.”

Haoqi: “At first, this was just about connecting PhD students who are constantly hitting really hard problems in their research with a lab community so they’re not left to wait for the next time they get to meet with their faculty mentor. Over time, this idea of building a community became a lot more about cross-collaboration.”

Liz: “In my lab, we started with a low fidelity prototype on the whiteboard. We’d each write our challenges on the board and then look around to figure out how to optimize help for each other based on individual skillsets. We write pairs down on the board to optimize help giving. Each week, we’d look back at the pairs we had made and remake pairs based on help needed and new perspectives offered.”   

Haoqi: “Once we had a sharable prototype running on Google, we had all of these colleagues who were like, ‘Cool! Give me that!’”

Screenshot of the spreadsheet prototype

Liz: “Faculty don't have a lot of time; they want to adopt things that work. So one of the things that we are currently designing for the platform is an easier adoption process. Part of this year's work is to get to a place where using Pair Research is as easy as downloading an app on your phone – you don't really think about it, you just do it because it helps you and your team to be more productive.”


Liz: “We could probably take every paper and product that has come out of the Delta Lab and reverse-engineer it back to collaborations through Pair Research.”

Haoqi: “I think the thing that really resonates with me is – what haven’t we done that hasn't been touched by Pair Research in some way because every student every project is going to hit a blocker and then they have somebody help them find a way past the blocker.”

Liz: “I have a PhD student who is working on building and designing an app. She was struggling with some code so she requested help on Pair Research.  She then was paired with one of Haoqi’s computer science students. Twenty-five minutes later the bug was fixed and she was on her way to finishing the code. That’s a pretty common scenario. Vice versa, we had a computer science student struggling with some qualitative data analysis who requested help and drew an expert in qualitative analysis and was able to get what he needed to finish his research paper which was just published.”

Haoqi: “It's almost like you have parts of your brain that store different knowledge and concepts that are going on and someone comes by and goes, ‘Here, let me link them for you.’”

Have a research project that could benefit from a new or different point of view? Give Pair Research a try! Who knows what types of new and interesting connections you’ll make…