A Framework for Design Theory and Methodology Research
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The scholarly study of design continues to develop new knowledge through a variety of approaches. Some researchers examine how designers work, and many develop new methods to help designers do design tasks. Studying design is complex for many reasons. There are many domains in which design occurs, including all of the disciplines of engineering, architecture, and other fields. More significantly, humans design, and human behavior can be difficult to understand. Designers sometimes work alone and sometimes in a group or team. Designers experience design work in multiple ways. Design researchers have been exploring many different aspects of design and experimenting with many different approaches and generating a variety of different design theories. The focus on exploration, however, has meant that there has been less emphasis on exploiting previous research and creating an organized body of knowledge. Building a unified body of knowledge is a long-term challenge. This paper describes a proposed framework for design theory and methodology research. This framework, which is based on ideas from education research, does not specify specific topics or methodologies. Instead, it describes six different research types: (1) Foundational Research, (2) Early-Stage or Exploratory Research, (3) Design and Development Research, (4) Efficacy Research, (5) Effectiveness Research, and (6) Scale-up Research. Illustrating these types are examples based on a table design example. The paper explains how these six research types are related to each other and how, collectively, they serve to generate valid knowledge about design. The research types follow a logical sequence in which researchers develop basic knowledge, create design methods, and test design methods. Although the framework numbers the research types following this natural progression, it does not insist that researchers do or should work by rigidly following this sequence. These research types actually form a cycle of research that iterates through three “phases”: description, explanation, and testing. In this cycle, researchers observe and describe a phenomenon, develop theories to explain the phenomenon and its interactions and effects, and test that theory against the phenomenon, and then, based on the results, refine their descriptions, revise their theories, and conduct more testing. Over time, the description of the phenomenon is improved (e.g., made more precise or more general), better explanations (theories) are found, and additional testing further demonstrates their correctness (or indicates their limitations). The proposed framework can show how different research studies are related to each other because they are the same research type or they fit into the progress of a design theory or the development of a design method. Thus, the proposed framework, while not a theory of design, can help researchers respond to the challenges of coordinating the different types of research needed to create useful design theories and build a unified body of knowledge. Future work is needed to analyze, test, and refine this framework so that it becomes truly useful to the design research community.