The concept of a theoretical framework may sound daunting. “Theoretical” is intangible, undefined, and has five syllables. Man, that’s a lot to digest! But using theory is a way we can get help from others’ work to guide our research and give it credibility.
The “framework” part of a theoretical framework doesn’t sound so scary. It’s a guide that helps researchers decide what’s in and outside the research. Combined… the theoretical framework should act as a building frame you can construct your project around. Think of it as the framing for a house—without it, it would fall. The more appropriate the frame, the better windows and brick you can place around it.
Theory provides some amazing insights for design research. Ever thought about how people behave differently if others are watching them? There’s a theory that explains that. Want to know if a raise in pay can impact a person’s self-worth? Yep, there’s a theory that explains that. Are you curious about how to go about learning the ways people communicate with each other in public places versus private interactions? Yeah. Theory. (See a pattern here?)
Theoretical frameworks are your friend. In the video, Dr. Guy does a great job sharing what theoretical frameworks are, how they can be selected, and what they mean for research.
For design research, communication, behavioral, or systems theories tend to be the most applicable. The theory you select will guide your project in every way. For example, if Social Cognitive Theory is selected, the types of observations you will make and how you measure findings will be profoundly impacted. When operating your project, the theoretical framework will act as a set of guardrails on your road to completing the project. You may not know where the road will go, but the theory will ensure you don’t jump off the road into a completely different topic.
The USC Libraries website has an excellent page on Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Theoretical Framework that addresses how to find, apply, and coordinate theories into projects like the ones we do in design research.
“The theoretical framework of a dissertation: what and how?” at Scribbr is also a helpful article for clarifying theoretical frameworks.
Finding a Theoretical Framework
Depending on your familiarity with theory, you may already have some in mind. We continue to post theory resources on the Theory for Design Research page.
Find theories that connect to your topic and follow the path through references tied to each theory. Eventually, you will construct a framework or will just select one theory that will guide how you look at your topic and how you develop your primary research.
Dennis’s ongoing List of Theory for Design Google Sheet