Tackling the ‘right’ problem: Investigating cognitive strategies used in understanding design problems
Looking beyond the provided or presented problem can allow new perspectives to emerge, revealing the potential for more varied and creative solutions. Current engineering and design research has primarily focused on the generation of ideas, and little research has investigated how engineering designers engage in identifying and refining problem definitions, a process called “problem exploration.” Past research has established that knowledge about how to perform problem exploration is important for improving our understanding of how presented problems turn into successful design solutions. However, existing problem exploration methods are not based on learning theory, and there is little empirical evidence about their effectiveness in education or practice. Therefore, the goal of this research is to investigate how engineering and industrial design students and practitioners explore problem spaces. The results characterize the cognitive strategies evident in finding, developing, and refining design problems.
This paper presents the results of two studies on the cognitive processes engineers and designers use to explore and define problems. Overall, the results demonstrated that problem exploration is associated with making shifts in design decisions. The first study focused on problem exploration strategies used by engineering and design practitioners through a content analysis of problem statements from web-based design competitions calling for novel solutions. The analysis resulted in an initial set of problem exploration strategies, or cognitive heuristics, extracted from the submitted solutions. The results also demonstrated that a single presented problem can be redefined by designers in a number of different ways. The second study examined individual cognitive processes through a think-aloud protocol study of five engineering design students (senior and graduate level) as they explored presented problems. The results of this study provided a more in-depth look at the problem exploration process, and demonstrated that while common problem exploration heuristics emerged, each engineer displayed a distinct way of looking at the problem.
These results will support the development of instructional materials for dissemination in both educational and practice settings in order to assist students, educators, and practitioners in their problem exploration processes. The project findings will help to better prepare designers and engineers to develop problem descriptions that represent core needs, and to frame them in ways that facilitate innovative solutions, ultimately resulting in solutions that address the real problems of the 21st Century.