The dimensions of design research

What, if any, is the difference design research, design-based research and design theory? How does your answer to these questions modify your practice and understanding of design research? Answers to these, and other related questions, are important, at least to me, and perhaps a broader community. This and subsequent posts are related to a paper I’m trying to write that has the working title “The dimensions of design research”.

So all of this is a work in progress.

The premise of the paper is that there are number of very different answers to the question of what is design research. These differences create a number of difficulties.

People interested in design research, particularly early researchers, find it difficult to understand what it is, how to do it properly and how to determine if a piece of research work is an actual contribution. This leads to “wars” between different camps about the validity or otherwise of a particular understanding of design research which leads to wasted time arguing about, rather than doing.

A design researcher can find it very hard to explain to a non-researcher what design research, or at least the form practiced by the researcher, is and what value it provides over other approaches. I’m involved in a project at the moment that claims to use design research. In fact, the unit I work with claims to draw on design research as its primary research method.

In a recent interview panel, looking for someone to be involved with design research, some of the non-researchers wanted an explanation of what design research is. In the short time available, the best answer I could give (typical academic) was that “it depends”. If you are from the education discipline you might give one answer, from an information systems you might give another answer and a more general design research may provide another answer.

And the beauty of involving academics in this discussion is that for each of the “discipline” based answers link above, each discipline will likely have a 100 more.

The aim of this paper idea then is to make use of (my very limited) understanding of perspectives from the philosophy of science, informed by the writings of my esteemed PhD supervisor (the very respectable Professor Gregor) and the broader Information Systems discipline to develop a description of the dimensions/understanding of design research which in some way makes more clear the variety of different approaches currently being practiced.

The hope is that mapping out these different approaches will help address some of the problems identified above and elsewhere around the practice and understanding of design research.