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Design research questions


One of the most important tasks in any design/research endeavor is to concisely define the problem.  In research and innovation, this the problem definition often takes the form of a research question, hypothesis or design argument.  How do you create a good research question, hypothesis or design argument?

There are an infinite number of design arguments, but most of them take one of a few common patterns. It's much easier to create your research question if you know the patterns--what are these patterns?



Goal-knowledge conflicts

Arguing from Sources explained that arguments tend to have 3 main milestones: seeing the issue, defining the problem, and solution.  Recall also that problem definitions tend to take a few specific forms.

Researchers and innovators are always trying to build new knowledge so their problem definition is almost always a "goal-knowledge conflict" that is:

  • Some agent wants X but the same agent doesn't know Y  [where goal X requires knowledge Y to be achieved]

Questions, hypotheses, and design arguments

In some cases, especially early-stage exploratory work, the researcher/innovator has a question for which they have no clue what the answer might be, so in that case the research question will be very open ended.  In other cases, the researcher/innovator has a guess about a solution to a practical problem and wants evidence about whether that guess is correct, so in that case the researcher/innovator is testing a hypothesis.  If the hypothesis is about something designed, then the researcher/innovator is testing a design argument.

Common forms

Note that if your research question is open-ended question, the answer will be some sort of assertion.  Whereas if you propose a "hypothesis" the research question is an assertion and the the answer is either "yep that was right" or "nope, it wasn't" (and hopefully some more detailed explanation of why).  For simplicity, we'll describe different forms of research question in "hypothesis" or assertion form--if you want to convert it to a more open-ended research question, just imagine the "jeopardy question" for that assertion.

Common forms:

  • Ethics: "<Domain X> is important for <learners Y> because <reasons A, B, C>."    Note that in the sciences, we don't typically ask this sort of question because it falls into the realm of politics and philosophy rather than empirical study.  Nevertheless, you will sometimes see arguments of this sort when researchers want to expand the field of study.
  • Domain definition: "Expertise in <domain X> involves <tasks A, B, C>."   These research questions involve study of the types of problems that people encounter in a domain.
  • Expertise.  "Experts competent at <task X> use <knowledge A, skills, B, dispositions C, with tools D, with resources/people E> in <context Z> and <standard of success Y>."  These research questions involve study of competence such as a task analysis.  These studies help us understand what learners need to learn.
  • Learner challenges.  "<Learners Y> have difficulty doing <task A> because they <lack knowledge A, skills B, dispositions C, tools D, and resources E>, <have misconceptions F>, although they <do have productive capabilities including knowledge G, skills H, dispositions I, tools J, and resources K>."  These research questions involve observational studies of how learners perform certain tasks.  These studies help us understand what learners can already do and what else they need to learn.
  • Context. "<Intervention> for <learners A> facilitated by <instructors B>, includes <facilities C>, <materials D>, <equipment E>, <institutions F> and <organizations G> and <communities H>."  These research questions involve observational study of the setting in which learners will learn.  They help us understand the constraints of a design solution.
  • Design. "If you want to design an intervention to promote learning of <task X> to <learners Y> in <context Z>, then you should give that intervention <substantive characteristics A, B, C> via <process D, E, F>, because of <reasons/principles G, H, I>."  These studies propose a design and test whether it works.  They help us figure out new ways to promote learning.  

These different forms cover an extremely wide variety of research questions.  When formulating your question, try to figure out which kind of question it is and use these forms to make your question more precise.


Easterday, M. W., Rees Lewis, D. G., & Gerber, M. (2016). The logic of the theoretical and practical products of design research. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(4), 125-144.

Kaufer, D. S., Geisler, C., & Neuwirth, C. M. (1989). Arguing from sources: Exploring issues through reading and writing. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Newman, W. (1994). A preliminary analysis of the products of HCI research, using pro forma abstracts. In B. Adelson, S. Dumais, & J. Olson (Eds.), Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 278-284). New York: ACM.

Plomp T. & Nieveen, N. (Eds.), (2007). An introduction to educational design research. Enschede: Netherlands institute for curriculum development.