Design by taking perspectives: How engineers explore problems

Jaclyn K. Murray, Jaryn A. Studer, Shanna R. Daly, Seda McKilligan, Colleen M. Seifert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Background: Problem exploration includes identifying, framing, and defining design problems and bounding problem spaces. Intentional and unintentional changes in problem understanding naturally occur as designers explore design problems to create solutions. Through problem exploration, new perspectives on the problem can emerge along with new and diverse ideas for solutions. By considering multiple problem perspectives varying in scope and focus, designers position themselves to increase their understandings of the “real” problem and engage in more diverse idea generation processes leading to an increasing variety of potential solutions. Purpose/Hypothesis: The purpose of this study was to investigate systematic patterns in problem exploration in the early design phases of mechanical engineers. Design/Method: Thirty-five senior undergraduate students and experienced designers with mechanical engineering backgrounds worked individually following a think-aloud protocol. They explored problems and generated solutions for two of four randomly assigned design problems. After generating solutions, participants framed and rewrote problem statements to reflect their perspectives on the design problem their solutions addressed. Thematic analysis and a priori codes guided the identification of problem exploration patterns within and across problems. Results: The set of patterns in engineers' problem exploration that emerged from the analysis documents alternative strategies in exploring problems to arrive at solutions. The results provide evidence that engineering designers, working individually, apply both problem-specific and more general strategies to explore design problems. Conclusions: Our study identified common patterns in the explorations of presented problems by individual engineering designers. The observed patterns, described as Problem Exploration Perspectives, capture alternative approaches to discovering problems and taking multiple problem perspectives during design. Learning about Problem Exploration Perspectives may be helpful in creating alternative perspectives on a design problem, potentially leading to more varied and innovative solutions. This paper concludes with an extended example illustrating the process of applying Problem Exploration Perspectives to move between problem perspectives to generate varied design outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)248-275
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Engineering Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • creativity
  • design
  • idea generation
  • problem definition
  • problem exploration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Engineering


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