McKay et al. (2012) The Design Construct in Information Systems Design Science

Authors: McKay, Judy and Marshall, Peter and Hirschheim, Rudy


This paper arose from concerns regarding the current conceptualizations of ‘design' in the emerging literature on design science (DS) in information systems (IS). In this paper, we argue that current conceptualizations of design in IS are overly narrow, which necessarily limits what is viewed as acceptable DS research. In response we advance a more encompassing view of design. The revised view extends the current perspectives of design in the IS literature to embrace broader conceptualizations of design, which are evident in many intellectual communities outside IS where design is viewed as a critical component of both research and practice – such as management, engineering, architecture and others. In addition to the fairly common conceptualizations of design as product and design as process or action, design is also conceived as: intention; planning – including modeling and representation; communication; user experience; value; professional practice; and as service. Further, whereas the current conceptualization of design in IS views IS design knowledge as split across two paradigms, namely DS and behavioral science, in this paper we argue for a broader and more integrated view of design: one that emphasizes both the construction-centered and human-centered aspects of design in IS. Building from our broader view, we discuss some of the implications for design-oriented research in IS, and consider ways in which this human- centered perspective might impact on the context and content of design research in IS.

Citation Judy McKay, Peter Marshall, Rudy Hirschheim (2012). The Design Construct in Information Systems Design Science. Journal of Information Technology, vol. 27 no. 2, pp. 125–139. URL

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {McKay, Judy and Marshall, Peter and Hirschheim, Rudy},
doi = {10.1057/jit.2012.5},
issn = {02683962},
journal = {Journal of Information Technology},
number = {2},
pages = {125--139},
publisher = {Nature Publishing Group},
title = {{The Design Construct in Information Systems Design Science}},
url = {},
volume = {27},
year = {2012}

Key ideas

The concept of design, and of design science (DS), has gained prominence in IS as evidenced by the attention to the work of Hevner et al. (2004). Building from earlier work of Walls et al. (1992), March and Smith (1995) and Markus et al. (2002), Hevner and colleagues established a basis for DS in IS (Kuechler and Vaishnavi, 2008). However, Carlsson (2006, 2007), McKay and Marshall (2005, 2007), Niehaves and Becker (2006), and Niehaves (2007a, b) have questioned some of the perspectives adopted and promoted by Hevner and others, and offer alternative views. Thus emerge two DS communities: the mainstream, organized around the Hevner et al. (2004) perspective, and a more pluralistic community. The mainstream DS community adopts a prescriptive, rather constrained definition of design, DS and DS research. The pluralistic community promotes a variety of perspectives around design (e.g., Carlsson, 2007; McKay and Marshall, 2007; Niehaves, 2007a,b; Avital et al., 2009).

The argument advanced here builds from Jones (2003) and Campbell (1977), to articulate why it is neither possible nor wise to have a single all-encompassing definition of either IS or of design in IS. Particular conceptualizations of design in IS may only be useful in certain circumstances, and thus must be located within a theoretical framework or context which reveals a perspective of IS in which we make sense of that conceptualization of design. This builds on the notions articulated by El Sawy (2003) who noted that any single perspective is just that: a single view among many possible views of 'reality.' El Sawy (2003) noted that each perspective both highlights and backgrounds different elements: different perspectives are not right or wrong: they offer differing views and insights. Building from this, we assert the different design communities in IS focus on different aspects of DS and that multiple perspectives are important for building a broader-based DS in IS.

We argue for multiple conceptualizations of design to be accepted within the field of IS, and thus the production of new knowledge of design in IS, the very basis of building a science of design in IS, can progress along a much broader front. Research needs to progress our understanding of both the material and the immaterial facets of design. Further, we argue that in addition to the important work already undertaken by Hevner et al. (2004), Walls et al. (1992), Markus et al. (2002), Peffers et al. (2008) and many others in starting to articulate what we here label as a construction-centered DS in IS, knowledge needs also to be built in a human-centered DS in IS (Roth, 1999; Avital et al., 2009).


Perspectives on design

Design as problem solving
Design as product
Design as process
Design as intention
Design as planning
Design as communication
Design as user experience
Design as value
Design as professional practice
Design as service

Tables and figures

Table 1: Differing perspectives of design from non-IS disciplines ~ p. 128
Design as … Brief description
Problem solving Transforming and improving the material environment, solution-oriented, finding solutions to field problems and implementing those solutions
Product Objects, entities, artifacts that arise and are imbued with meaning within those contexts, designer inextricably linked to the designed product
Process Processes and actions that lead to the realization and implementation of an artifact in a particular context, design involves action taking and change
Intention Deliberate thought processes that enable the designer and user to see connections between problem and possible solutions, the intent driving the design activity and the impacts this has on the realized artifact
Planning Working hypothesis (or plan, model, etc.) that captures and formalizes the designer's intentions
Communication Conceptual characteristics (form and content) of artifacts that resonate with users, the ways meaning is reconstructed by users
User experience The range of experiences (both manifest and latent) created for and received by the user of an artifact, the meanings and experiences a user constructs with an artifact over time
Value The value (often symbolic and/or social) placed on the artifact and the experiences of that artifact by a user, and how this changes over time
Professional practiceThe broad responsibilities and activities of designers who inevitably change the world through their actions, an attitude towards a problem, consideration of the knowledge and skills required by designers
Service Day-to-day problem solving, ability to understand and help others resolve or ameliorate problems, mindful of contextual forces and constraints

Table 2: Conceptualizations of design in non-IS literature ~ p. 132
Table 3: Conceptualizations of design in IS literature ~ p. 133
Table 4: Developing a research agenda for human-centered design science in IS ~ p. 136

Figure 1: The focus of design interest in IS according to Hevner et al. (2004: 79). Figure 1 ~ p. 126

Figure 2: The IT artifact 'surrounded' by the organizational context Figure 2 ~ p. 127

Figure 3: The oscillating nature of design problem solving Figure 3 ~ p. 128

Figure 4: A socio-technical view of IS situated in context: The IS artifact as the 'ultimate particular' Figure 4 ~ p. 134

Figure 5: Components of IS design science Figure 5 ~ p. 135

Figure 6: Embracing multiple conceptualizations of design Figure 6 ~ p. 137


Design Research, IS artifact, IT artifact, design, design science, human centered design science