Developing appropriate theory is one of the main challenges facing engineering design (Cross, 2007). Theory helps to both explain design activity but also support greater research impact in the domain. It is useful for gaining a more comprehensive understanding of design activity and developing suggestions for improvements and support. One theory that may be particularly applicable to the early design stages is Information Processing Theory (IPT) as it is linked to the design process with regard to the key concepts considered. IPT states that designers search for information if they perceive uncertainty with regard to the knowledge necessary to solve a design challenge. They then process this information and compare if the new knowledge they have gained covers the previous knowledge gap. In engineering design, uncertainty plays a key role, particularly in the early design stages which has been highlighted as the fuzzy front end. To solve this uncertainty, designers collect and exploit information to mitigate uncertainty in design decisions (Love and Roper, 2009). This is then turned into knowledge in order to make it applicable to the designer’s and business’ needs (Cousins et al., 2011). Finally, the new knowledge is shared between the design team to reduce ambiguity with regards to its meaning and to build a shared understanding – reducing perceived uncertainty. Thus, we propose that Information-Processing Theory is suitable to describe designer activity in the early design stages and a potentially useful theory to adopt in engineering design. The aim of this paper is to explore whether the predictions of IPT apply to empirical designer activity in the early design stages. Based on the literature on IPT, a mental framework is presented that depicts the theoretical predictions. This is applied to an experimental study with student engineers solving a product design task. The results show that IPT is indeed a useful theory and we discuss the implications for the field.
13th International Design Conference - Design 2014, 2014