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Problem Finding/Solving

In the early days of cognitive science, many studies focused on how people solved complex problems, and what models of human thinking might explain this behavior, and help predict new forms of it. Many studies looked at how experts versus novices solved these problems, which often were ones people might be asked in a laboratory. The sorts of problems that were studied included chess problems, diagnosing failures in an electric circuit, or answering questions related to algebra, geometry or calculus. Computers, especially those running Artificial Intelligence programs, were devised to solve some of these problems, sometimes with better success than people. Many useful findings were derived from these studies, where there was a single correct answer and sets of possible explanations that people could use to tell why they answered the way they did. Still, people knew that these programs, like those that play chess, do so in ways that are very different from the way people do.

Some of these researchers noticed that there were domains that were much tougher to study. Designing is one such domain, because its challenges were not well structured -- they were "ill-defined problems" to quote Herb Simon. A key difference between well- and ill-defined problems was that the range of solutions was much greater with ill-defined problems, and more importantly, that the ill-defined problem had so many sub-problems, that different people could focus on wholly different issues and still come up with viable solutions.

Good designers see designing as something that usually does not have a single, correct answer. In fact, many designers say that the hardest part of designing is not solving the problem, but finding the right problem to focus upon and then solve. Real talent in designers is to explore the "problem space" so that they know what are the real issues that need to be address, and then to play down other concerns.

Related Resources

You might want to go the NPR website on the history of the Wright Brothers invention of the first self-powdered, heavier-than-air craft that could fly. They decided that the main problem of flight was to have a machine that was well balanced -- they drew upon the analogy of a bird, and tried to use this as the inspiration for their work. The brothers' greatest competitor was Samuel Langley, who had lots of funding from the Department of Navy. He say powered flight as an issue of having a powerful enough engine. He thought of cannons and projectiles when he designed his airplanes. In the end, Langley spent all of his time creating a better combustion engine, while the brothers had found the right problems and got their machine off the ground years before Langley even finished his engine.

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