Notes from Expertise in Design

Victor Lombardi pointed to a research paper on design process (PDF) with some interesting findings. Excerpts and notes below.


Interesting distinction of exploration methods; I’ve found myself using both:

Novice behaviour is usually associated with a ‘depth-first’ approach to problem solving, i.e. sequentially identifying and exploring sub-solutions in depth, whereas the strategies of experts are usually regarded as being predominantly top-down and breadth-first approaches. (2)

Perspective is different for novices and experts:

For example, creative experts will define the given task so that it is problematic – i.e. deliberately treat it as ill-defined – which is contrary to the assumption that experts will generally solve a problem in the ‘easiest’ way, or certainly with more ease than novices. In some ways, therefore, creative experts treat problems as ‘harder’ problems than novices do. (3)

Some contradiction to most design process advice, which is to do lots of exploration early, “fail faster”:

It seems that [expert] designers are reluctant to abandon early concepts, and to generate ranges of alternatives. This does seem to be in conflict with a more ‘principled’ approach to design, as recommended by design theorists, and even to conflict with the idea that it is the exploration of solution concepts that assists the designer’s problem

understanding (7)

Fricke 29, from protocol studies of engineering designers, found that both generating few alternative concepts and generating a large number of alternatives were equally weak strategies…In the case of ‘excessive expansion’ of the search space (generating large numbers of alternative solution concepts), designers were then forced to spend time on organising and managing the set of variants, rather than on careful evaluation and modification of the alternatives. (7)

Though perhaps a hybrid is best:

Ball and Ormerod…suggested that expert designers will normally use a mixture of breadth-first and depth-first approaches (8)

Regardless, even if you’re diving in deeply, it seems best to be flexible about the specifics:

Something [all outstanding designers] seem to have is an ability to work along ‘parallel lines of thought’ – that is, to maintain an open-ness, even an ambiguity, about features and aspects of the design at different levels of detail, and to consider these levels simultaneously, as the designing proceeds. (9)

Three aspects of expert design (9):

  1. Start with your “first principles”

  2. Frame the problem from a specific perspective to “stimulate and pre-structure the emergence of design concepts”

  3. Work on problems that combine your own personal commitment and the solution needed by a client/requirements

And don’t get stuck on the problem; have a plan for getting to solutions:

It appears that successful design behaviour is based not on extensive problem analysis, but on adequate ‘problem scoping’ and on a focused or directed approach to gathering problem information and prioritising criteria. (10)