Gregor & Jones (2007) The Anatomy of a Design Theory

Gregor, Shirley and Jones, David


Design work and design knowledge in Information Systems (IS) is important for both research and practice. Yet there has been comparatively little critical attention paid to the problem of specifying design theory so that it can be communicated, justified, and developed cumulatively. In this essay we focus on the structural components or anatomy of design theories in IS as a special class of theory. In doing so, we aim to extend the work of Walls, Widemeyer and El Sawy (1992) on the specification of information systems design theories (ISDT), drawing on other streams of thought on design research and theory to provide a basis for a more systematic and useable formulation of these theories. We identify eight separate components of design theories: (1) purpose and scope, (2) constructs, (3) principles of form and function, (4) artifact mutability, (5) testable propositions, (6) justificatory knowledge (kernel theories), (7) principles of implementation, and (8) an expository instantiation. This specification includes components missing in the Walls et al. adaptation of Dubin (1978) and Simon (1969) and also addresses explicitly problems associated with the role of instantiations and the specification of design theories for methodologies and interventions as well as for products and applications. The essay is significant as the unambiguous establishment of design knowledge as theory gives a sounder base for arguments for the rigor and legitimacy of IS as an applied discipline and for its continuing progress. A craft can proceed with the copying of one example of a design artifact by one artisan after another. A discipline cannot.

Citation Shirley Gregor, David Jones (2007). The Anatomy of a Design Theory. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, vol. 8 no. 5, pp. 312–335. Article

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Gregor, Shirley and Jones, David},
journal = {Journal of the Association for Information Systems},
number = {5},
pages = {312--335},
title = {{The Anatomy of a Design Theory}},
volume = {8},
year = {2007}

Key ideas



Approaches to Design Theorizing

Proposed specification for ISDT

The Eight Components of an Information Systems Design Theory

1. Purpose and scope

2. Constructs

3. Principles of form and function

4. Artifact mutability

5. Testable propositions

6. Justificatory knowledge

7. Principles of implementation

8. Expository instantiation

Tables and figures

Table 1: Example of the skeleton of a design theory (from Codd, 1970, 1982) ~ (p. 315)
Article details The design theory anatomy
The introduction says better database technology is needed to increase human productivity.
(Motivation is also provided: This need is significant because current approaches are failing.)
The purpose and scope of the theory are stated.
The relational database model has principles such as “the order of rows in the tables
is arbitrary and irrelevant.”
Principles of form and function
incorporating underlying constructs (such as “table”) are given.
The argument is made that the relational model allows for relatively simple adaptation
and change to base tables, while user views appear unchanged.
Artifact mutability is addressed.
Statements are made such as “A relational database can perform as well as a non-relational database.”These statements are testable propositions.
It is shown how the relational model works, by reference to underlying set theory
and also human cognitive processes.
Justificatory knowledge (kernel theory) is provided.
Guidelines are given on how to produce a relational database through normalization procedures.Principles of implementation are given.
An illustration of working relational databases is provided.An expository instantiation is given.

Table 2: Eight components of an Information Systems Design Theory ~ (p. 322)
Core components
1) Purpose and scope (the causa finalis)“What the system is for,” the set of meta-requirements or goals that specifies the type of artifact
to which the theory applies and in conjunction also defines the scope, or boundaries, of the theory.
2) Constructs (the causa materialis)Representations of the entities of interest in the theory.
3) Principle of form and function (the causa formalis)The abstract “blueprint” or architecture that describes an IS artifact, either product or method/intervention.
4) Artifact mutabilityThe changes in state of the artifact anticipated in the theory, that is,
what degree of artifact change is encompassed by the theory.
5) Testable propositionsTruth statements about the design theory.
6) Justificatory knowledgeThe underlying knowledge or theory from the natural or social or design sciences that gives a
basis and explanation for the design (kernel theories).
Additional components
7) Principles of implementation (the causa efficiens)A description of processes for implementing the theory (either product or method) in specific contexts.
8) Expository instantiationA physical implementation of the artifact that can assist in representing the theory both as an expository device and for purposes of testing.

Table 3: Comparison of design theory approaches ~ (p. 323)
Proposed anatomical skeleton Dubin (1978) Walls et al. (1992)
1. Purpose and scope Boundaries Meta-requirements
2. Constructs Units
3. Principles of form and function Laws of interaction Meta-description
4. Artifact mutability System states
5. Testable propositions Propositions Product hypotheses
Process hypotheses
6. Justificatory knowledge Product kernel theories
Process kernel theories
7. Principles of implementation Design method
8. Expository instantiation Hypotheses and empirical indicators

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Design Science, artifacts, constructive research, design science, design theory, information systems, information technology, philosophy of science, theory structure