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Research Papers: Design Theory and Methodology

Computer-Based “Mental Set” Tasks: An Alternative Approach to Studying Design Fixation

[+] Author and Article Information
Maria Adriana Neroni

Department of Engineering,
University of Cambridge,
Trumpington Street,
Cambridge CB2 1PZ, UK
e-mail: man52@cam.ac.uk

Luis A. Vasconcelos

Department of Engineering,
University of Cambridge,
Trumpington Street,
Cambridge CB2 1PZ, UK
e-mail: lal40@cam.ac.uk

Nathan Crilly

Department of Engineering,
University of Cambridge,
Trumpington Street,
Cambridge CB2 1PZ, UK
e-mail: nc266@cam.ac.uk

Contributed by the Design Theory and Methodology Committee of ASME for publication in the JOURNAL OF MECHANICAL DESIGN. Manuscript received November 24, 2016; final manuscript received April 6, 2017; published online May 12, 2017. Assoc. Editor: Katja Holtta-Otto.

J. Mech. Des 139(7), 071102 (May 12, 2017) (10 pages) Paper No: MD-16-1789; doi: 10.1115/1.4036562 History: Received November 24, 2016; Revised April 06, 2017

The term “design fixation” refers to a phenomenon where designers unknowingly limit the space within which they search for solutions. In an attempt to study this phenomenon experimentally, researchers typically set participants open-ended design problems, prime them with an example solution, and measure their performance through a variety of subjective metrics. This approach gives rise to various problems, including limited data capture and highly subjective evaluation of design behavior. To address these problems, we studied design fixation with a computer-based task inspired by psychological paradigms used to study “mental set” (also known as the “Einstellung effect”). The task consisted of a gamelike activity requiring participants to design a bridge within a specified budget. The use of a digital environment facilitated continuous data capture during the design activities. The constrained task (and direct quantitative measures) permitted a more objective analysis of design performance, including the occurrence of fixation. The results showed that participants who developed a mental set during the task failed to find alternative, more efficient solutions in trials admitting multiple solutions, compared to the participants who did not fall victim to this mental block. In addition, during the process of designing, the occurrence of mental set resulted in participants adopting a less efficient design behavior and reporting a different subjective experience of the task. The method used and the results obtained show an exciting alternative for studying design fixation experimentally and promote a wider exploration of the variety of design activities in which fixation might occur.

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Figures

Grahic Jump Location
Fig. 1

Screen images of the game platform used for the trials (Reprinted with permission from Chronic Logic [33]), showing th design mode (left) and the test mode (right)

Grahic Jump Location
Fig. 2

Mean additional cost (and standard error) of the last design tested compared to the first design tested. In each case, the additional cost is relative to the cost of the least expensive possible functional solution.

Grahic Jump Location
Fig. 3

Proportion of trials in which the participants exhibited the stop if it works behavior, the strong then cheap behavior, and the cheap then strong behavior. “Others” refer to all the cases in which the behavior could not be classified in one of previous categories or resulted from a combination of them.

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