Design Research: What We Learn When We Engage in Design (Edelson, 2002)

Edelson, D.C. (2002). Design Research: What We Learn When We Engage in Design. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 11(1), 105–121.

This article discusses the value of design research, including the prescriptive and descriptive lessons (i.e., via domain theories, design frameworks, and design methodologies) that can be learned through such methodology. The authors use their own design research project (Supportive Inquiry-Based Learning — SIBLE) to give concrete examples where appropriate.

Commonly-used names for this type of research include: design experiments (Brown, 1992; Collins, 1992), design research (Cobb, 2001), and development research (Richey & Nelson, 1996; van den Akker, 1999).

“In this theory development approach, the design researchers begin with a set of hypotheses and principles that they use to guide a design process. Importantly, these hypotheses and principles are not detailed enough to determine every design decision. In addition, these guiding principles are not followed slavishly if accumulated evidence, specific circumstances, or informed intuition lead the designers to believe they do not apply. In this way, the design researchers proceed through iterative cycles of design and implementation, using each implementation as an opportunity to collect data to inform subsequent design. Through a parallel and retrospective process of reflection upon the design and its outcomes, the design researchers elaborate upon their initial hypotheses and principles, refining, adding, and discarding—gradually knitting together a coherent theory that reflects their understanding of the design experience” (p.106).

Design domains and research questions that have employed design research: design of learning activities (Brown & Campione, 1994; Cognition & Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997; Hmelo, Holton, & Kolodner, 2000; Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Penner, Giles, Lehrer, & Schauble, 1997), software design (Bell, Davis,&Linn, 1995; Guzdial, Turns, Rappin, & Carlson, 1995; Hancock, Kaput, & Goldsmith, 1992; Jackson, Stratford, Krajcik, & Soloway, 1996; Scardamalia et al., 1992; White & Frederiksen, 1998), and professional development (Schifter, 1996; Sherin, 1998) (p. 107).

Definition of design: “Design is a sequence of decisions made to balance goals and constraints. In the course of any design, the design team makes three sets of decisions that determine the results of the process. These are decisions about (a) how the design process will proceed, (b) what needs and opportunities the design will address, and (c) what form the resulting design will take” (p. 108).

Design procedure: “…specifies the processes and the people that are involved in the development of a design” (p. 108). Problem analysis: “…characterizes the goals, need, or opportunity that a design is intended to address together with the challenges, constraints, and opportunities presented by the design context. As such, the problem analysis incorporates what is frequently called a needs assessment” (p. 109). Design solution: “…”describes the resulting design. It is the result of the designers’ efforts to address the challenges, satisfy the constraints, exploit the opportunities, and balance the tradeoffs that were identified in the problem analysis” (p. 109).

How design research differs from ordinary design: “…the goal of ordinary design is to use the lessons embodied in a design procedure, problem analysis, and design solution to create a successful design product. Design research retains that goal but adds an additional one, the goal of developing useful, generalizable theories. The opportunity that design offers for theory development is the possibility of using the lessons learned in constructing design procedures, problem analyses, and design solutions to develop useful theories. For each of these three elements of design, there is a corresponding type of theory that design research can develop” (p. 112).

Design research can produce three types of theories: Domain theories; Design frameworks; Design methodologies

  • Domain theories – generalization of some portion of the problem analysis (how learners learn, how learning environments influence teaching and learning, etc.) Descriptive, not prescriptive. Also, there are two types of domain theories: context theories and outcomes theories.
    • Context theory – characterizes the challenges and opportunities presented by a class of design contexts (ex: specific challenges of designing software for learners).
    • Outomes theory – characterizes a set of outcomes associated with some intervention (ex: components of reflective inquiry, based on an intervention to support that).
  • Design frameworks – describe the characteristics that a designed artifact must have to achieve a particular set of goals in a particular context (prescriptive). A design framework is a collection of coherent design guidelines for a particular class of design challenge. (Ex: anchored instruction, for creating meaningful problem contexts for extended problem solving; concept-oriented reading instruction, for motivating reading instruction through interest; and goal-based scenarios, for creating learning-by-doing software and in-person learning environments).
  • Design methodologies – describes (a) a process for achieving a class of designs, (b) the forms of expertise required, and (c) the roles to be played by the individuals representing those forms of expertise. Used to ensure that the design process addresses all the essential issues, includes all of the necessary expertise, and progresses efficiently.

How can ordinary design be augmented to yield useful research results?

  1. By being informed by prior research and guided by research goals.
  2. By thoroughly and systematically documenting the design process; by making the implicit elements of design explicit. “In design research, the designer–researcher documents the problem analysis, solution construction, and design process in a form that makes it an object for public reflection and discussion. Systematic documentation can be used to produce a design case, a rich description of a problem analysis, solution, and design procedure for a particular design experience. Maintaining systematic documentation ensures that a design research program will have data to support subsequent analysis (p. 117).
  3. By including formative research to expose inadequacies in the problem analysis, the solution, and the design procedure.
  4. By generalizing the findings towards the development of domain theories, design frameworks and design methodologies.

“…two important evaluation metrics for design research are novelty and usefulness…The point of design research is to generate theories that could not be generated by either isolated analysis or traditional empirical approaches.” (p. 118).

“Traditional empirical methods gain their strength from statistical sampling. As others have pointed out, the strength of theories developed through design research comes from their explanatory power and their grounding in specific experiences (Cobb, 2001; Steffe & Thompson, 2000). A design research theory is compelling to the extent that it is internally consistent and that it accounts for the issues raised during the design and evaluation process” (p. 118).

Why engage in design research?

  1. it provides a productive perspective for theory development.
  2. usefulness of its results.
  3. directly involves researchers in the improvement of education.
One Response to “Design Research: What We Learn When We Engage in Design (Edelson, 2002)”
  1. Dixie — both with regard to this article and more broadly, I appreciate your filter and analysis here. Thank you for sharing!
    – benjamin

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