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Portfolio Analysis: Igniting a long-term spirit in a short-term world (V). Design-Based Research explained.

DBR explained

Last week, we introduced to you the idea of Design-Based Research as a new method for portfolio analysis.

From Easterday, Rees-Lewis and Gerber (2014) Design-Based Research Process: Problems, Phases and Applications.

The DBR (Design-Based Research) has existed since the beginning of human history (1). But DBR as an iterative process for design and research in education, products/services, and other disciplines; is a recent methodology that has just started to be used. Many authors have added their grain of sand in framing and challenging it as of the 90s decade. The DBR has been rolled out and used in certain academic disciplines, certain industries, and as a method of teaching in certain schools and universities, particularly in the United States. Nevertheless, researchers in DBR have been also evaluating it on education, helping academic researchers and teachers, guiding them by trusting and using the power of theory, experiments, experience, and iteration. “DBR provides educational researchers with a process for use-inspired basic research, in which researchers design and study interventions (at each phase the process requires interventions) that solve practical problems in order to generate effective involvements and theory that is useful for guiding design. DBR is important because it recognizes that neither theory alone, nor interventions alone are sufficient. According to D. Stokes (2), the classical model of research and development, that is basic research leading to applied research, leading to development, leading to products does not work well, particularly when it comes to technology. Alternatively, design without the guidance of theory is likely to be incremental and chaotic (haphazard)”.

DBR is an effort to tie the knot between theory and application (practitioner) for problem-solving. In an iterative way. The theory derives its purpose from application and application derives its power from theory. The idea of us to recommend DBR is the fact that this methodology starts with an abstraction that later triggers qualitative research so much useful to reinforce an existing theory and then build a new theory that may help us for addressing the definition of the problem that we wish to fix (in terms of business value proposition, the problem is defined at as needs and wants, and it is hard to find academic theory in finding the best-balanced solutions). Additionally, the methodology DBR is immersed also in quantitative approach methods that may come from a laboratory and from the field (practice). The design may happen in our mind, building prototypes in a lab. But research connected with design provides the confident and influential scientific rigorous tactic that is well required in our entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and managers in their quotidian business proposition creation.

In order to understand the latter paragraph, let´s proceed to learn the DBR methodology first. Eleonora Escalante Strategy has found two frameworks that basically are kind of the same, so we will show you both:

  1. Design Based Research (by Easterday, Lewis and Gerber, 2016)
  2. Design Based Research from other authors.

ONE. Design Research (by Easterday, Lewis, and Gerber, 2016) (1). These authors introduced their first DBR process framework around 6 years ago, and they have updated it by changing its name to Design Research (3). Please see below the most updated diagram we could find

The DBR or Design Research Process (1) consists of 7 iterative phases: focus, understand, define, conceive, build, test and present.

According to the authors the DR process consists of 7 interleaved phases, in which the design researcher focuses on the project, understands the situation, defines the problem conceives a solution, builds the solution, tests the solution, and presents it to stakeholders.  

PhaseDescription or PurposeAdditional concerns in Research
FocusBound to whom the product serves, topic, team, and scope of the project. To ensure that the project pursues an important goal that can be achieved with current resourcesInclude the research community as stakeholders.
UnderstandStudy learners, domains, contexts, stakeholder needs, and existing solutions. To understand the nature and causes of the current problem or situation.The understanding phase investigates the problem through empirical methods and secondary sources. Empirical means observation, interviewing, surveys data analytics. Secondary sources include other researchers’ work, analysis of similar problems and solutions. Designers must work to understand the nature and causes using formal research methods, that can help to identify the real root causes of the problems
DefineThis means to convert an indeterminate problem that has no solution into a determinate problem that can be solved (4). By defining the problem, including the learning goals, assessments, and constraints.Defining a research question goes beyond the design of a product/service for needs and wants at a commercial level. It requires considering theory and all the stakeholders, the environment, and the society’s well-being. “A novel problem definition in the format of a question can be the core innovation of everything, it can lead to entirely new kinds of iterative research and simultaneous solutions”.
ConceiveSketch a plan for the solution to the question problem. To allow designers to test the design against their own knowledge and theory. Identify other problems and improved solutions before committing to implementation.This implies imagining a solution and analyzing whether it will work. It starts at a conceptual level, determining the components of the solution and how they may work together. Here the designers develop theoretical products, design arguments, the underlying principles, and understand the different levels of complexity.
BuildDesigners implement the solution as a usable prototype, in the form that can be used.The prototype built is dynamically iterative. Every implementation of a prototype improves or sacrifices unnecessary features, and it is crucial to find if it can answer the question of the problem definition.
TestEvaluate the efficacy of the solution. Iterative user-testing involves testing successive (often testing various prototypes versions in parallel).  Early testing of the prototypes produced with experts’ reviews and walkthroughs. Later testing on prototypes focuses on practicality and effectiveness, field trials, and their variants.Testing provides the designer with feedback about the success of the design and the validity of the theoretical propositions. It tells the designer whether the design has achieved its practical and theoretical goals.
PresentCommunicate to key stakeholders, including the community why the design will better solve a problem that addresses their interests. To ensure appropriate support for the project.Create presentations, research papers of the theory validations, and ask for grant proposals for the academic community.

The Design-Based Research Method is iterative. And takes time. Each of the phases described above is iterative. These are not carried out in a linear sequence but rather iteratively. According to the authors of this model, each of these interconnected phases requires a delicate balance between planning, iteration, and medium; medium defined as means. When planning allows designers to avoid future mistakes and the medium makes testing costly (e.g. building a bridge or an infrastructure project of a robust size such as the Mose protection floodgates for the Italian city of Venice (5)), then there will be little iteration or at least a greater emphasis on lower-fidelity prototyping and modeling. However, the design has to consider all the possible future scenarios, to re-design in the prototype small size, as many potential iterations to explores multiple solutions to build the best one that will last over time.

The MOSE project may not be enough to keep the city dry. Photo: Awakening/Corbis via Getty Images. Source:

When our ability to avoid bad designs through planning is limited, and the medium makes the costs of testing low (E.g. web applications), then the iteration is likely to be quick and frequent. And this happens in the technology labs. But what happens when technology will disrupt societies to their highest? In the case of the Bitcoin solution for El Salvador, we must ask ourselves what is the problem definition that Bitcoin will solve? Is there a problem? And if our country wants to be used as a prototype of a high-level DBR process for testing, El Salvador will pay the costs of a non-existent integral problem definition, and the lack of recursively nested research processes that are foundations of the theory of a good currency.

Let´s continue with our Bitcoin example: let´s see the Bitcoin issues involved if implemented in El Salvador as of the next 7th of September. Scientists of “money” or currency, may conduct this experiment in our town. But the sole implementation of it, as to test the validity of their solution, has no good “currency” theory behind it. As it is right now, Bitcoin is a digital volatile asset, not a currency. So there is a problem with the “problem definition”. Qualitative research methodologies with a grounded theory require that any “currency” must be stable (not volatile as the Bitcoin). The DBR for this financial product also requires a quantitative approach with several iterative processes in each of the 7 steps explained above, and these scientific research methodologies of iteration (both qualitative and quantitative) take time, probably more than 5 or 10 years after the problem definition of using it as a currency. If there is a problem definition with the definition, even before releasing the prototype or the test of it, we are in trouble. Probably in the process, there will be new elements of theories and models that can be incorporated into the design of a new product for digital currencies, that won´t be at all similar to the Bitcoin first idea. So, why test it in my country, if the premises of DBR have not complied at all with the requirements of “currency” by trying to apply a financial product called Bitcoin for that?

I will stop here. In next Friday´s episode, I will explain the second other authors’ interpretations of DBR. And I will explain both frameworks using the example of an artist that is beginning to sell original watercolors using the DBR approach. For the moment, enjoy the music that I found for this post.

Sources of Bibliography used today:

(1) Easterday, M; Lewis, D.R.; Gerber, E. (2014). Design-based research process: Problems, Phases, and Applications. ICLS 2014 Proceedings. Volume 1. Pages 317-324

(2) Stokes, D (1997). Pasteur´s quadrant: Basic science and technologic innovation. Brookings Institution Press.

(3) Easterday, M.; Lewis, D. Rees; Gerber, E. (2016) The logic and the theoretical and practical products of design research. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(4). 125-143

(4) Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues 8(2), pages 5-21



Disclaimer: Illustrations in Watercolor are painted by Eleonora Escalante. Other types of illustrations or videos (which are not mine) are used for educational purposes ONLY. Nevertheless, the majority of the pictures, images, or videos shown on this blog are not mine. I do not own any of the lovely photos or images posted unless otherwise stated.

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