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Asking the Right Questions

How can we start to ideate? The instructor will walk you through the process.

You may experience, in your studies, or your work, that you have enough technical knowledge to tackle a design project.

However, you may find yourself to be not as knowledgeable on matters such as principles of design, commercialisation potential, consumer psychology and society. This results in designers attempting to solve problems which they know nothing about. They are therefore unable to provide an appropriate solution to a need. Or, even not being able to address a need correctly.

If by now, you are saying to yourself: “But I know nothing!”. This itself can be turned into an opportunity. You should ask very basic (stupid) questions on fundamental matters, and hopefully get an interesting answer in return!


Starting in a position of ignorance allows us to question the obvious. This will allow us to us to review our beliefs or our understanding. This is the main turning point in design thinking.

You may not realise this – sometimes the best discoveries in science and innovation come from people outside the field, rather than within it. People from outside our field are able to question or challenge things that we take for granted.

Radical ideas can come from non-experts. For example, the manufacturing company, 3M, about a decade ago, wanted to develop a product which could prevent infections after surgery. They found a breakthrough concept solution by engaging with a theatrical makeup artist. Or, a warehouse which needed to track their inventory ‘borrowed’ their solution from sensors on miniature robot-soccer players. We will explore further in engaging experts from non-related fields on the following section: “Who to engage in ideation”.


You may use the following points as guide to your questioning, in order to identify the problem statement:

  1. Human – centred. What are the problems faced by the user, or the “common man/woman”. Too often, a design problem is posed by an academic or industrial engineer, who is not familiar with the reality of the situation. Engaging the society, and identifying the pressing needs is the source of innovation ideas.
  2. Keep it wide enough to encourage creativity yet narrow enough to encourage creation. An example of a “too wide problem” is “To eradicate hunger”. Narrowing the scope may translate into something which may sound like – “How may we provide food assistance during the Covid pandemic for lower income inner city residents?” Defining a particular situation/target demographic/geographical location lets you focus on exploring solutions for a genuine needy problem.

There is also a flip side of starting with a too narrow problem. This may come from an academic or industry supervisor who is very invested in his or her own academic/ commercial interests. They perhaps have not considered whether there is a real need for such a product in real life. In such cases, you have an exciting role of starting with a suggested idea and finding out if there is a real user need for that project.

If the answer is yes, you will have then added value to the problem by identifying the user needs for it. If the answer is no, then you have saved everyone a lot of trouble and it’s back to the drawing board to find out who has a real and pressing need!

These two points will get you started. Next week, we will look into greater detail on the techniques that we may employ to generate the ideas arising from these questions. For now, we should identify the right people to engage with.

© Universiti Malaya
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Ideation: The First Step in Engineering Design

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