Venable (2006) The Role of Theory and Theorising in Design Science Research


The literature on Design Science (or Design Research) has been mixed on the inclusion, form, and role of theory and theorising in Design Science. Some authors have explicitly excluded theory development and testing from Design Science, leaving them to the Natural and Social/Behavioural Sciences. Others propose including theory development and testing as part of Design Science. Others propose some ideas for the content of IS Design Theories, although more detailed and clear concepts would be helpful.

This paper discusses the need and role for theory in Design Science. It further proposes some ideas for standards for the form and level of detail needed for theories in Design Science. Finally it develops a framework of activities for the interaction of Design Science with research in other scientific paradigms.

Citation John R. Venable (2006). The Role of Theory and Theorising in Design Science Research. Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology, pp. 1–18. DOI

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Venable, John R.},
doi = {},
journal = {Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology},
pages = {1--18},
title = {{The Role of Theory and Theorising in Design Science Research}},
year = {2006}

Key ideas

A Design Science is an inventive or creative, problem solving activity, one in which new technologies are the primary products.

DS ~ Design Science  
ISDT ~ Information Systems Design Theory
SSM ~ Soft Systems Methodology

This paper contends that, like other scientific research paradigms, theory should be a primary output and that theory and theorising need to play a central role in the advancement of Design Science Research in IS (as well as in other fields).

This paper expands on prior IS Design Science literature by discussing the role of theory and the activity of theorising in Design Science Research as it is currently – and more importantly how it should be – practiced in IS.


1. Introduction

Theory and theorising have long played an important role in the evolution and practice of science. (p. 1)

Theory embodies statements of the knowledge that has been developed by humanity in a form that has both use in the practical world where human beings act based on their knowledge (partly learned from theories) and in the theoretical world where researchers validate or refute old knowledge and build new knowledge in the form of theories. (p. 1)

the methods for social science have varied from positivist through interpretivist methods due to the complex and subjective nature of (most of) social reality. (p. 1)

Both natural and social sciences are empirical in nature, with theory as the primary product. (p. 1)

Kuechler (2004) point out, “Even within design research communities there is lack of consensus as to the precise objective – and therefore the desired outputs – of design research.” (p. 2)

This paper contends that, like other scientific research paradigms, theory should be a primary output and that theory and theorising need to play a central role in the advancement of Design Science Research in IS (as well as in other fields). (p. 2)

2. Design Science Literature on Theory and Theorising

Design Science has its roots in engineering and other applied sciences. An important foundation is Herbert Simon’s conceptualisation in The Sciences of the Artificial (first published in 1969, third edition in 1996). (p. 2)

Simon (1996) noted that “Schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design.” Clearly this includes the 'school' or entire field of Information Systems. (p. 2)

Less commonly acknowledged in Design Science, but very relevant, is Peter Checkland’s conceptualisation of Human Activity Systems in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (Checkland and Scholes, 1999), which are systems of or supporting human activity and the human purposes for which they exist. (p. 2)

Parts or all of SSM are widely used to guide Information Systems Development. (p. 2)

Theory and theorising are important ingredients in the Nunamaker et al (1991) approach to Design Science. (p. 3)

They [Nunamaker et al] developed a framework of a “Multimethodological Approach to IS Research” (Figure 2) (p. 3)

Roles for theory and theorising also appear in the System Development Research Process that Nunamaker, et al (1991) proposed (Figure 3). (p. 3)

Their process is composed of five stages or activities (with backtracking) including: (p. 3)

  1. Construct a conceptual framework;
  2. Develop a system architecture;
  3. Analyse and design the system;
  4. Build the (prototype) system; and
  5. Observe and evaluate the system.

The first and last steps are relevant to theory and theorising. The first stage includes “State a meaningful research question” which is presumably based on theory, and “Study relevant reference disciplines for new approaches and ideas, which is also based on theory. (p. 3)

  1. declare the “truth”,
  2. formulate a concept (i.e. a framework)
  3. construct a method, and
  4. develop a theory.

Walls et al (1992) argue that an ISDT would need to address both the design product and the design process used to derive the design product. An ISDT would have seven components, four of which relate to the design product and three of which relate to the design process. (p. 4)

The four components of an ISDT about the design product according to Walls et al (1992) are: (p. 4)

  1. meta-requirements,
  2. meta-design,
  3. kernel theories, and
  4. testable design product hypotheses.

They are called meta-requirements rather than just requirements because they address a generalised class of goals rather than particular, situated goals (e.g. in some particular organisation at some point in time). (p. 4)

Meta-design concerns the design of design product and “describe the class of artifacts hypothesised to meet the meta-requirements. It is called meta-design rather than just design because the design product is not a particular instantiation, but a general approach to be used in particular occurrences of the class of goals in the meta-requirements. (p. 4)

3. Design Science (Research) vs Design Practice – The Role of Theory

An important issue and one that has confronted all of the above authors is the issue of practice vs research. The issue of (and justification for) how system development can be research rather than just practice drove Nunamaker et al (1991) in the first place. (p. 9)

Vaishnavi and Kuechler (2004) put the issue into words as these questions: (p. 9)

"How is your research different from a design effort; what makes your work research and not simply state-of-practice design?"

They answered the question with this assertion: (p. 9)

"We propose that design research is distinguished from design by the production of interesting (to a community) new knowledge."

Hevner et al (2004, p. 81) provide more clarity and contrast Design Science Research, which

"addresses important unsolved problems in unique or innovative ways or solved problems in more effective or efficient ways"

[Hevner] as opposed to routine design, which (p. 9)

"is the application of existing knowledge to organizational problems"

4. Why Should Theory and Theorising be Part of Design Science Research?

5. Design Theory = Utility theories

6. The Theorising or Theory Building Activity

7. A Framework for Theorising in Design and Other IS Research

Tables and figures

Figure 1: Figure 4 above reproduced from Vaishnavi and Kuechler, 2004 Figure 1 ~ p. 8

Figure 2: Components of Utility Theories Figure 2 ~ p. 13

Figure 3: An Activity Framework for Design Science Research Figure 3 ~ p. 17


Design Science Research, INF6001W