What is "design-based research"?

Design-based research is a conceptual framework and collection of methods for developing knowledge at the same time as you try to make practical improvements in the real world.

What is "design-based research"?
Photo by Halacious / Unsplash

Design-based research is a conceptual framework and collection of methods for developing knowledge at the same time as you try to make practical improvements in the real world. In that sense, design-based research is closer to an engineering than to a "pure science."

The approach was developed in the early 1990s, but is now common in educational research. Educational research is often done in messy, naturalistic classroom settings rather than in clean, controlled laboratory settings. And it is typically concerned with not just understanding how learning happens in those settings, but also how to improve it.

As an example, imagine we are designing an app for elementary school students to learn "computational thinking." Designs like this typically start with a very high-level, vague idea about how the design relates to or promotes computational thinking: maybe the game involves putting blocks together to form "instructions" to an agent, and maybe some of those blocks represent logical operations.

But how will we know if or when this design "works"? How does it work? Which design features really matter, and which can we de-prioritize? Depending on our goals, we may also want to ask: what is the specific nature of computational thinking supported by this design? How does it relate to other types of learning we might care about, like learning mathematics or learning to program?

Without being able to clearly answer these questions, we can't improve the effectiveness of our design for supporting computational thinking. For one, we have no way of systematically generating specific ideas for design improvements. It's also difficult to prioritize the development of specific design features, if we don't know which features really matter. It's hard to convince others that our design really is as effective as we say it is– whether through argument alone, or with actual empirical evidence.

Design-based research is a systematic way of approaching these problems simultaneously.

Design-based research for technology development, generally

I was surprised to find that design-based research isn't well-known by technology developers. Most software attempts to get a user to do a certain thing, understand a certain thing, or adopt a particular perspective or mindset. Whether it's "goal setting" or "mindfulness" or "habit formation" or "networked thought"– any new software takes some specific approach to promoting or supporting some specific phenomenon.

Yet typically, software are designed without, e.g., a clear theory of goal setting or theory of productivity. (The "theory" doesn't have to be too academic, here-- it's more like "how we understand this phenomena or experience we're trying to create.") Software design also often lacks a clear "theory of action" connecting features of a design to those specific processes and outcomes that it intends to promote.

Design-based research methods are useful for developing this sort of theory at the same time as you are developing a product. It clarifies the relationships between the design, how the design "works", the specific nature of the processes or phenomena it supports, and specific (observable) outcomes and metrics. It also helps distinguish what is unique about a particular product design, and clarifies the argument for why and how people should expect it to work.

Design-based research consulting

I've realized over the last 10 years that thinking carefully about design is my favorite part of research– I am both good at it, and enjoy it immensely. I enjoy it enough that I want to do it even for other peoples' projects.

I am now offering consulting on design-based research methods. I will meet with you, talk through your design and thinking, and then give feedback and suggest specific methods to help you:

  • think through your design and your "theory of action"
  • develop and hone your thinking about the phenomenon, experience or outcome you're designing for
  • find useful prior research that could inform your thinking or your design (and make it "research-based")
  • strategically generate key design ideas and improvements
  • focus design and development efforts on features that really matter
  • operationalize the success of your design
  • create convincing evidence for when and how the product works

If you're in the early stages of developing a design idea, or have built something promising but aren't yet sure where you want to take it– let's get in touch.