Representing Meta-Artifacts

Representing Meta-Artifacts

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0131-4.ch006
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The concept of a design theory includes, among others, the components of meta-requirements and meta-systems. As an artifact, according to Simon, it is characterized in terms of its outer and inner environments, and the interface, design-type research projects may focus on one or another aspects of meta-artifacts. The purpose of this chapter is to describe a representational framework incorporating different views of meta-artifacts. The chapter introduces such a framework based on Zachman’s model for information architecture. The two dimensional model includes perspectives and categories dimensions. The former is defined in terms of four layers, including analytical, synthetic, technological, and implementation layers. The latter includes the categories of motivation, structure, behavior, and instantiation. At each layer alternative meta-artifact conceptualizations may be proposed by different researchers, implying a third dimension in the framework. A complete design research work on any given layer would correspond to a research project. A work targeting the entire matrix would constitute a design-type research program. Efforts by different design researchers on alternative conceptualizations could be regarded as research stream.
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Meta-Artifacts: The Right For Existence

The previous chapter has introduced the concepts of observation and theory (by Walls, et al.) in design-type research in information systems. We have seen that a design theory contains at its core a meta-system artifact. In other words, the product of the design researcher’s work is not a concrete system, but the abstract one. One could say that design researchers propose systems, which cannot be implemented. This statement, of course cannot be interpreted literally, to mean that the workings of the proposed solution type are not demonstrable. It rather means that whatever instantiation comes out of the meta-artifact’s conception, it will necessarily have a mixture of the generic as well as specific instantiating elements. It is impossible to implement the meta-artifact form in its purity.

The design researcher, thus, unlike a designer, is not so much interested in the marketability of a particular software, since his or her interest lies beyond a specific package. What would really attest to the legitimacy of the design research question he or she had set out to tackle, and the appropriateness of the proposed artifact-theory is the adoption of systems, through which the proposed artifact form manifests itself. Adoption, thus, serves as an indicator of the prevalence of the meta-need that the meta-artifact seeks to address. In other words, it positively signals the existence of the context in the shape hypothesized by a design researcher as well as the hypothesized form devised to fit the context. Admittedly, adoption is not the definitive criterion, just like a few observations confirming a given scientific theory cannot serve as decisive evidence. Nevertheless, these adoption-observations are the only tangible means of assessing meta-artifact’s viability. In this sense, one might suggest that adoption serves to provide evidence to attest to the truth or falsity of a given meta-artifact.

Adoption though is heavily influenced by the very factors that design-type research would rather ignore, according to our position, in particular by market forces. Thus, design researchers appear to face a curious dilemma: while they tend to ignore the interplay of particular market forces in their projects aiming at producing meta-artifacts for potentially wide adoption, these forces are the ones that crucially contribute to the very adoption. The escape from this dilemma lies in the belief that truly good meta-artifact forms will manifest themselves in one particular way or the other, no matter what paths markets evolve in. While this belief may not have always been supported by the history of technology, it is hard to accept that a discovered artifact form, which suggests a sufficiently significant improvement over its rivals, would not turn up in particular designs sooner or later.

For example, a desktop metaphor and Graphical User Interface (GUI) is a human-computer interaction form, which tremendously advanced the wide adoption of micro-computers by non-technical users. Initially developed at Xerox, GUI way of interacting with machines had reached the markets via Macintosh and Windows for IBM PC. Regardless of the prevalence of a particular commercial product, the GUI as a form proved to be far superior to the text command-oriented rival form. Another example of a successful meta-artifact is a computerized spreadsheet form. Although it appeared in concrete product manifestations throughout its short history as VisiCalc, Lotus 123, or MS Excel, it’s the general structural and behavioral aspects of the (tremendously successful) spreadsheet form that truly matter from a meta-artifact design perspective.

In design-type research a scientist tries to discover such potentially successful forms. Elements of these forms may already exist in some instantiated system cases, but the task of the designer-scientist is to explicitly define the structural and dynamic aspects of a purely abstract meta-artifact. The criterion of truth here is elusive, and before the artifact has been built and used, there’s little to empirically attest to its viability. When a novel system concept is conceived and introduced a design researcher anticipates that it will be useful to the target user group within a given class of business contexts. Utility thus, is a practical criterion to assess the potential value of the artifact. When an artifact type actually finds its place in the technological arsenal of organizations, markets, and individuals, it becomes a part of the infrastructure. It fills an intended gap, and in this sense, becomes true. Utility, thus, provides a temporary judging principle for the artifacts that will eventually turn out to be true, or false. It serves a role of a probe in approaching the issue of the artifact’s right for existence.

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