Illustrating the Benefits of Systems Thinking and Early Stage Product Design

Maria Yang By Eric Smalley
January 2, 2012

Much of the design and development of products focuses on engineering. But Assistant Professor Maria Yang believes that to get the most out of the product design process, it pays to linger over pencil and paper right at the beginning.

Research led by Yang shows that the design sketches generated during the earliest part of the design cycle can have a big impact on outcome. Yang, who teaches courses in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program, is on the faculty of both the Mechanical Engineering Department and the Engineering Systems Division. She also leads the Ideation Lab, which studies the processes and behaviors involved in early phases of product development.

The preliminary stage of design is challenging to study because of its ambiguous nature. Design concepts can change rapidly, and this evolution can be difficult to capture and assess. Yang studies these so-called "informal" representations, which can take the form of sketches, models, prototypes, or even words. She said that for many engineers and designers, the act of sketching itself is way of thinking.

"You’d be hard-pressed to find a designer or engineer who doesn’t sketch out ideas when they are trying to think about new concepts," said Yang. "But there is little understanding of how such representations subsequently impact a design outcome."

Research suggests that the early stage decisions designers make have a significant impact on the cost and performance of the final product, said Yang. The Ideation Lab examines how design teams generate concepts, decide what to design, and, most importantly, how representations of these designs drive the early design process. They study when in the design cycle designers construct informal representations, what they represent, and the quantity and quality of these "sketches."

Research indicates that higher sketch quantity early in the design process correlates with good design outcomes, while sketching later correlates negatively. The simplicity of a prototype also correlates positively; complexity tends to lead to more negative outcomes.

With this in mind, it’s clear that the conceptual phase of the design process often gets short shrift. "People have a tendency to jump to a design quickly," she said. "There’s incredible pressure—because of deadlines, cost, competitiveness—to select a ‘final’ concept as soon as possible. However, you can’t skip thorough the early exploration phase of design concepts, whether through visualization or other low-overhead modeling."

Taking a holistic view of the design process shows the benefit of thorough exploration in the conceptual phase. "Often when we think of engineering, we think in terms of creating and applying technology," said Yang. "Systems thinking means you consider broader issues, in addition to the technology—preferably at the very beginning of design. These questions must be answered: ‘Who will use this product? How will it be used? What’s the business case? How can it be produced?’ These concepts should subsequently be rendered visually, through a drawing or model that a design team can refer to as a representation of their overall vision."

Maria Yang