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Spanning the complexity chasm: A research approach to move from simple to complex engineering systems

  • Vimal Viswanathan (a1) and Julie Linsey (a2)


A multistudy approach is presented that allows design thinking of complex systems to be studied by triangulating causal controlled lab findings with coded data from more complex products. A case study illustration of this approach is provided. During the conceptual design of engineering systems, designers face many cognitive challenges, including design fixation, errors in their mental models, and the sunk cost effect. These factors need to be mitigated for the generation of effective ideas. Understanding the effects of these challenges in a realistic and complex engineering system is especially difficult due to a variety of factors influencing the results. Studying the design of such systems in a controlled environment is extremely challenging because of the scale and complexity of such systems and the time needed to design the systems. Considering these challenges, a mixed-method approach is presented for studying the design thinking of complex engineering systems. This approach includes a controlled experiment with a simple system and a qualitative cognitive-artifacts study on more complex engineering systems followed by the triangulation of results. The triangulated results provide more generalizable information for complex system design thinking. This method combines the advantages of quantitative and qualitative study methods, making them more powerful while studying complex engineering systems. The proposed method is illustrated further using an illustrative study on the cognitive effects of physical models during the design of engineering systems.


Corresponding author

Reprint requests to: Julie Linsey, Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 801 Ferst Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA. E-mail:


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Spanning the complexity chasm: A research approach to move from simple to complex engineering systems

  • Vimal Viswanathan (a1) and Julie Linsey (a2)


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