Design Science

Last month I was an invited speaker at the 4th Annual Education and Technology Forum at the Mayo Clinic. The title of my talk was the importance of Design Science for Improving Education. The words science and design are not often used together, with design more often being associated with art, as in fashion design, interior design or graphic design. My first task was to explain why “design” was a more general activity that all humans do, it is not just about making things look good or artistic.

I gave the example of Personal Information Management (PIM) where people evolve their own designs for their information spaces at work. Once we see that design is a general human activity, we can then consider how we scientifically study the processes of design. There are two paths we can go down here. We can evolve our own approaches based on an informal design process and hope they work. Or we can systematically observe, measure and compare different approaches to show which ones are more effective and/or efficient. In other words, we can take a scientific approach to determining how to improve design (whatever the domain).

Among the many things researchers have founds studying PIM is that there are two main approaches: filing and piling. The illustration below shows a mixture of both approaches where papers important to the faculty member are piled into separate categories, but there is also an informal filing using shelves and post-it notes. This is a system that evolved through the person thinking about different possibilities, and arranging things to suit their idea of how things might work best for them. They may have used a different system in the past, made changes over time or borrowed ideas from seeing how others approached this problem.


The illustration above is in a sense a theory of how best to organize an information space. One that can be tested against other theories. Researchers studying this space can test how fast it is to find a given piece of information in the design. They can test how easy it is to construct, learn, maintain and use the specific design compared to others. Computer researchers are very interested in this specific domain to help them design better tools for facilitating organization and access to digital information.

This Google Tech Talk by Manuel Perez-Quinones is a good overview of a design science approach to personal information management:

Design processes can be informal and idiosyncratic, like the above example, or highly formalized and collectively determined like the ones that are described in textbooks of design-related disciplines (e.g. engineering, architecture). The US has been the pioneer in developing what is akin to an engineering discipline for the design of instruction. In the field of instructional design [see instructional design central], researchers study different process models, tools and methods used to develop instruction. From this they have developed formal systematic approaches to instructional design, similar to those found in other design-related disciplines. Instructors in higher education often have no training in formal approaches and develop their own idiosyncratic approaches. Many institutions have found that they can obtain better quality instruction by employing instructional designers to educate and support their faculty in the design process.

A brief introduction to instructional design can be found here: