There are four very different foundations for undertaking design research. The differences between them are reflected in the different research methods for data collection and analysis and validation of theories. These differences are also reflected in four different ways of writing up such research in reports, theses, journal articles, conference papers and books.
- Researching a 'design problem and multiple research questions'. This is classic applied research in any of the 800 disciplines in which design is undertaken. Design is a professional practice with intended real world outcomes and as such a 'design problem' is pragmatically the unit of inquiry. Design problems are messy things that typically involve multiple factors form different fields in complex ways. After considering Langrish's OBEs, the research is usually left with the need to answer multiple research questions to resolve the problem. Multiple research methodics are needed; each appropriate to the individual research questions that need to be addressed.
- Research based on 'proving or disproving a hypothesis'. This is classic research in theoretically well-developed fields such as Psychology. The focus of this kind of research is the validation of a carefully formulated statement that can only be true or false. Nebulously, sometimes this 'hypothesis' statement can sometimes be reformulated into a question for convenience of readers. In essence, however, the focus is the truth or falsity of the hypothesis statement. The research methods are such that they typically either definitively prove or disprove the hypothesis statement, or they provide quantitative measures of confidence in evidence about the truth of the hypothesis statement.
- Research based on 'Exploration'. This is classic 'basic', 'blue sky' 'exploratory research' is found in all disciplines. Exploratory research can be done in many different contexts: laboratories, libraries, secondary document analyses, secondary data analyses, real world situations etc. The focus and starting points of exploratory research are multiple. It could be a topic, direction, aim, current theory, idea, real world situation. By its nature, the choice of data collection and analysis and theory construction methods are ad-hoc.
- Research based on a single research question. This is a classic research approach common within the Humanities and has been over-reified. The idea has spread relatively uncritically from Humanities for several historical reasons. Examples of such research based on a single research question are 'What were the implications for Russian development in the 1950s of changes in the countries around the Black Sea? 'What are the implications for Science education of changes in women's rights?'. Much of this research based on a single research question has also, regardless of its complexity, been naively associated with the idea that it should be undertaken from a single perspective using a single research method. Where this is so, it typically offers an easy target for critical review.
Each of these four foundations for research are relevant to Design Research. Each is associated with different patterns of use of research methods of data collection and analysis and theory construction.