The following is an introduction into the concepts of design science. This implies that you need to learn the definitions of some terms. Focus in this part on remembering them and understanding what the terms mean and how they are distinct. We will go through a series of activities to further learn how to use these terms and apply them to your own thesis.
This preparation contains tasks. To get the full benefit of the seminar, you need to fill out the tasks while you read, either on a printout of this document or on a separate paper. It is not important that you answer the tasks correctly, but that you write down your thoughts when the task is given, so you can reflect about how your thinking changes over time.
This preparation also contains guidelines when applying design science in your thesis. We will discuss them in the seminar. They are included already now so you see what will be important.
Before we begin, there may be two things on your mind:
You may react to the word design. Why is it design science? Could there be a technology science? Or engineering science?
Don’t worry too much about the term design. It just covers the fact that we need a scientific approach to something that is designed by humans, and by this we understand anything artificial, including algorithms, electronics, programs, or systems.
You may feel that design science is complicated, since we need to introduce some new terms, or use familiar terms in a slightly different way. We will talk about “treatments” and emphasize the difference between “validation” and “evaluation.”
Be assured, however, that this will make your thesis easier for you. We give you the words and a scaffolding for thinking about your thesis.
The Difference Between What You Do, What You Find Out, and What You Write
We often hear the formulation “I am writing my master thesis.” This emphasizes the focus on the tangible product of the thesis, which is the thesis report. Given that your final grade is based on the report, this is understanable. But focussing primarily on the report is also limiting and doesn’t help to understand what you need to actually do.
The actual result of a thesis is knowledge, and that implies new knowledge, and idealy knowledge that turns out to be useful. The report only captures these results, that means, presents the new knowledge. In addition, the report documents the process how the results were acquired so that they are reproducible. How do you get these results, this new knowledge? You do this by the actual work that goes into the thesis. (Writing the report also constitutes “work,” but of a different kind we mean here.)
What this work is, really depends on the nature of your discipline and subject. Sometimes, knowledge is produced mainly through reading and thinking. Sometimes, knowledge is produced by observation and experiments. Sometimes, knowledge is produced by creating technology artifacts and validating them. Deciding what to do is part of your work.
Simply being aware of the distinction between these three concepts can already help you to understand better what to do. Design science helps you with reflecting what knowledge is and how to acquire it, planning your work and making your report more explicit. It helps you to plan and perform the necessary work to produce new knowledge within engineering disciplines.
A student thinks “I have used a lot of time on these measurements, they should thus also make up a considerable portion of the pages of my report.” — What do you think about this statement?
Why is it good to have a method?
The aim of research is to acquire new knowledge. For a thesis, we could naïvely say that you read about a problem, make some experiments and build a prototype and then write about it. So why not just doing it?
Think of sports. You could just start running, and as long as you are doing it for fun, that’s okay. But assume you want to run a marathon a few months from now with the goal of reaching a more ambitious finish time. Soon you would ask how much running each day actually helps you to reach your goal. Too little and you make no progress, but too much exposes you to the risk of injury. Or think of strength training. How much weight and how many repetitions should you start with? How quickly should you increase? Or how much weight should you take off once you make no progress anymore? Most likely, you will try to find a training plan, either in the form of a book, an app or a personal trainer. A training plan helps you to measure your progress, have an idea about how to spend your effort wisely to reach your goals, and provide advice when you are not reaching your goals.
So is design science like a training plan? Not exactly, since it does not prescribe you what to do. But it provides a framework (the terms, the structure) to think of how to plan your work. That’s pretty useful, and makes the following things easier:
Asking the right questions, and guiding your attention to the most important issues. Many students put a lot of emphasis on the implementation in the form of programming something. This can be useful, but can also be a waste of time if the implementation does not lead to new knowledge. Being aware of design science may reveal which work deserves more attention, and which tasks are actually useless. Distinguishing useful from useless tasks is sometimes not as obvious.
Understanding the problem. Many students invest too little time in understanding the actual problem first. Suddenly it is not obvious anymore why you do a certain thing. Once you reason about your work, you should at all times be able to tell why your are doing something.
Planning ahead. A thesis must be completed within a limited time frame, and many students are bad at planning ahead. (This applies not only to students.) Planning ahead can reduce effort and prevent you from doing stuff that is not necessary. Note that even in the best planned thesis you may choose a path that eventually turns out not to be fruitful. But you may reduce effort that would not be fruitful to begin with, choose the approach most likely to succeed, or at least not running blindly into walls.
Natural Science vs. Design Science
You are probably aware of the general scientific method, which consists of a systematic sequence of steps, namely observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. This method is used in the natural sciences, which deals with explaining natural phenomena.
Isn’t it possible to apply this general scientific method also to technology? Instead of phenomena created by nature, we try to understand phenomena created by humans, that means, we try to understand technology? Do we need another framework?
It turns out, that when we naïvely apply the scientific method of natural sciences to technology, the result is not a very good fit. It’s like going hiking in jeans. They are technically pants but awful for that purpose. You get the idea. The method for the natural sciences is not a good fit for technology projects because there are two main differences between natural sciences and technology:
The natural sciences intend to gather new knowledge about the world without changing it. When we develop new technology and do the research for that, we do so with the ambition to change the world.
Natural sciences are driven by knowledge questions, that means, finding answers to questions. Technology, on the other hand, is driven by the intention to solve or mitigate a problem, which is driven by stakeholders, or people wanting to solve a problem.
But wait: Say we want to create a new, more effective antenna. Don’t we have to make experiments that explore, for instance, how electro-magnetic waves propagate? Isn’t that a classical problem of the natural sciences, in this case physics? — The answer is yes. Design science is not an alternative to the natural sciences. Design science has access to all methods of natural sciences when answering so-called knowledge questions. More on that later.
So, the differences between natural science and technology make it hard to simply apply the general scientific method to a research project dealing with technology.
Without reading any further, take your current thesis topic and think of it in the framework of natural sciences. Can you write down a question that characterizes the knowledge you would like to gain?
We come back to this question later. Most likely, you have formulated a question in a way that does not really help you in the process further. Design science helps you to ask better questions.
Artifacts in Context
Design science is the design and investigation of artifacts in context (Wieringa 2014). Further, design science problems are improvement problems. The aim is that the designed artifact in interaction with its context solves a certain problem. This is in a stark contrast to the natural sciences, that “only” want to gain new knowledge about the world. (Don’t misunderstand the “only”, this is not saying that natural sciences are somehow less useful.)
But what exactly are artifact and context?
Artifact: An artifact can be anything designed and created by humans, both as a real, physical object or an abstract concept. Examples for artifacts are:
Context: The problem context for the artifact can be anything that interacts with the artifact or that has influence on it. Typically the problem context for an artifact is not a single context, but consists of elements like the following:
Values, Desires, Fears
Goals, Norms, Budgets
other artifacts, as the ones named above.
The context for one artifact can also be another artifact, for instance when a system interacts with another system, but only one of them is under research.
You may ask why it makes a difference to emphasize that research within technology is not only about technology itself (i.e., the artifact), but about the artifact in context. This distinction is helpful when you think of what you should do in your thesis and how you should evaluate it:
Your thesis is not the same thing as an artifact that you create and describe in a report. Especially, an implementation is not the main result of your thesis. Instead, your thesis is about how an artifact solves a specific problem (in a problem context), and through a validation you demonstrate if or how effectively it solves that problem. An implementation may be part of it, but the validation and the description of the problem are essential.
Many students (and supervisors) focus on the technology but forget to sufficiently address the problem context. This becomes evident when the thesis does not offer a good validation. Instead, addressing the problem will make it easier to also find good validation mechanisms and focus on them.
In your work, be aware of artifacts and what the problem is. Do not design an artifact without first considering its problem context and how artifact and context interact.
What are possible artifacts for your thesis? What are examples for elements in the problem context? List some!
Knowledge Questions vs. Design Problems
The core of design science is a separation of two different kind of research problems: design problems and knowledge questions. These correspond to the two different parts of design science, which are design and investigation. In principle, anything we do in design science belongs to either one of these activities. Before we argue why this distinction is useful, let us first distinguish these two research problems from each other.
Example for a Design Problem: Design an algorithm that recognizes human activity based on accelerometer data from a wristband.
Example for a Knowledge Question: Is it feasible for patients in a specific age group to wear a wristband?
Calls for a change in the real world.
Does not change the real world, but asks only how it is.
Solution is a design.
Answer is a proposition.
Solutions are many, and there is no single best solution.
There is one single answer only.
Evaluated by the utility to stakeholder goals.
Evaluated by truth.
Often, students (and supervisors) are not aware of the distinction and approach a design problem as a knowledge question. Then, instead of writing:
(Good:) Design an algorithm that recognizes human activity based on accelerometer data from a wristband.
(Not good:) What is an algorithm that can recognize human activity based on accelerometer data from a wristband?
Isn’t the second one also a good question that can lead us to a good solution? Consider again the table above and see what we wrote under knowledge question:
We are not asking for knowledge about the world, but we ask implicitly to change the world, by introducing such an algorithm.
The answer to the question is not a proposition, but actually a design.
There are many potential algorithms that can solve the task, which means there is more than one answer.
The utility of the algorithm is determined by a lot of factors, which depend on the stakeholder goals.
Treating this design problem as a knowledge question instead does not guide us in the right direction and is not helpful. Especially validation and outcome are different.
Carefully distinguish between design problems and knowledge questions.
Go back to your answer from Task 1 above. Do you see a better fit when thinking of your thesis as “studying an artifact in a problem context”, as opposed to a “natural phenomena”? Replace the question from Task 1 with the description of a problem that you want to solve by introducing an artifact. Does this describe your thesis better than the answer in Task 1?
List some knowledge questions and some design problems for your thesis. It is sometimes not so obvious what they are, so this may be harder than it may appear, and it is okay you try it with a first attempt.
The Design Cycle
We can now describe a process to design an artifact:
The process is iterative, starting with the problem investigation.
Problem Investigation: Which problem do we need to solve and why? To answer this question, you need to identify the stakeholders of the problem. The stakeholders have goals that you need to identify so you can describe the problem.
Treatment Design: With treatment, we mean a potential solution. The term treatment emphasizes that it does not necessarily solve the problem, which we first know in the later phases. To design an artifact, we need to specify its requirements first and check if there are already designs out there that could work before we create new ones.
Treatment Validation: In this phase we want to find out if the artifact produces the desired effect, and if it can solve the problem.
Treatment Implementation: This phase is not part of a research project, and you will not be able to do it as part of your thesis, because it would mean to evaluate the artifact in its real world context. We discuss in the next section why.
These steps form a cycle, since the validation may reveal more knowledge about artifact and context, which motivates another round.
Evaluation and Validation
By now it should be obvious that it is not enough to just come up with an artifact, but that it is necessary that we find out and demonstrate how effective this artifact is in solving the problem we designed it for. If an atifact doesn’t solve the problem, it’s useless.
Finding out that the artifact does not work as intended does not mean you get a bad grade in the thesis. Understanding why something does not work can also be valuable knowledge, that is helpful to create another artifact.
Let’s first talk about what we call evaluation:
Evaluation is the investigation of a treatment as applied by stakeholders in the field.
Where we mean by “treatment” the application of the artifact, the “stakeholders” are the persons that require a problem solved, and “in the field” means that the artifact is applied in reality, in the way (scale, context,...) it is intended.
Imagine your task is to design a new resource allocation algorithm for a base station in a 5G setting. You have designed the algorithm, even created a program that runs it. Are you able to evaluate it, in the sense of evaluation as given above? — No. Of course not. There is no way that you can test your algorithm in reality. You would have to get access to a real network, real users with real traffic, and integrate it into a future architecture that doesn’t even exist yet. This is not only the case for your thesis, but for many research projects and even development projects in general. Evaluations are hard to do and take time.
So what is the next best thing if an evaluation in reality is not possible? That is what we call validation:
The goal of validation is to predict how an artifact will interact with its context, without actually observing an implemented artifact in a real-world context.
This is a useful understanding of validation that addresses the practicalities we face in research. It means that you need to find ways to predict how a certain artifact would behave in practice. For our 5G algorithm example we could for instance:
build a prototype to understand the algorithms complexity,
make a event-based simulation model that simulates anticipated traffic of the future system,
make an analytical problem to see if the algorithm has selected, relevant properties.
These items above are only examples, that should illustrate reasonable steps during validation that step by step investigate how the artifact behaves. None of these validation steps are executed in reality, but interpolate and try to predict or simulate how a real system would behave. Finding such relevant validation steps can require a lot of work and creativity, and is often even more elaborate than designing the artifact in the first place.
Think early in the process about how to validate artifacts, that means at least before you design the artifact itself.
Missing Validations: Some students (and supervisors) ignore the validation part, and rush too quickly towards designing the artifact. In some cases this may be because the actual validation is implied by the habits in the discipline, but sometimes it is an oversight or neglect. You certainly don’t want to come into the situation that you have created one or more artifacts and then don’t know how to validate them. This is tragic for the thesis report, since the validation part is usually the one that is easier to write about (if the validation exists) than the actual implementation. Imagine in the example above that a student spent a lot of time to implement the algorithm as a bunch of code. Code can of course be tested, or you may measure its execution time. In some cases, this may even be relevant for a validation, but what with cases where the execution time for the code is not relevant at all? Maybe writing the code wasn’t the problem in the first place, but some other properties of the algorithm that should be validated without any written code? This is why it is so important to think about the validation before any effort is spent on creating artifacts.
That’s it for now.
We have now discussed some of the most important elements in design science. Don’t worry if you feel a bit confused and have troubles distinguishing the terms from each other. Go back and read the text again until you remember the main concepts. We will apply the concepts in some exercises so that you can use them for your thesis.
See you in the seminar.
Optional Further Reading
What you read now is sufficient for the seminar. After that, you should continue reading on design science depending on which parts you need to elaborate further. Much of this introduction you just read is based on the book of Roel Wieringa, Design Science Methodology for Information Systems and Software Engineering. You can access this book as PDF from within the campus network, and we also made it available for you on Blackboard.
In your thesis, you should not refer to this seminar when writing about your method. Instead, refer to published literature about design science, and make sure to refer to the specific choices you made for your thesis.