How to Solve Difficult Problems Using a Simple Engineering Design Process

Being able to solve difficult problems or even easy ones for that matter is crucial to our survival. It’s beyond important. It’s what our lives depend on.

Imagine for instance the problem of food. When you are hungry or thirsty, you should know how to solve that problem. You should know that you have to eat or drink. If not, you will die.
But not all problems are as easy to solve. In fact, some are quite difficult to figure out. And when they are difficult to figure out, there is a tendency for us to try to ignore them or wish they would go away.

How do we raise our kids properly for example is not so easy to answer. Or how do we ease traffic in the city is a huge challenge for public officials.

Difficult problems require a more deliberate approach. It could take time and effort to analyze what’s going on and even more to come up with a solution.

If we are wise, we would seek to solve rather than avoid difficult problems. Sure it can be stressful and draining but it can also be a window to an opportunity or new learning.

But how do we do it? How can we face problems without being paralyzed by fear or uncertainty? Is there a skill that we can develop or a system that we can use that can make it less daunting?

As a matter of fact, there is such a process. It’s called the Engineering Design Process.

And I got to read about it in a book recently. But you will see as you read more that it's not new.

It is similar to the scientific method that anyone of us can apply to whatever difficult problem we have to face.

When you have a process that you can consistently use to solve problems, a new one that comes along that may seem too much to handle can be broken down to simple and easy-to-follow stages.

It will still be hard but it will lose its power of overwhelming the problem-owner because he or she will know what steps need to be taken. And it will give him or her a better chance of finding the solution.

So how does the Engineering Design Process work?

As promised, it’s very simple and will involve following this chart with five critical steps.
  1. Define the problem
  2. Collect data
  3. Formulate a hypothesis
  4. Debate approaches
  5. Experiment
First and foremost is to define the problem. The more specifically we define the problem the better our chances would be of solving it.

In the traffic problem for example we need to define where exactly the problem is. Is it the whole city or just the main roads? Is it a problem all the time or only during peak hours? How slow is the traffic flowing and by how much should we aim to improve it?

Once a problem is clearly defined, we can then more easily proceed to collecting any available data to help us make sense of it. Depending on the sufficiency of these data, we could either use them or collect more of them through observation.

For example on the traffic issue, traffic data are collected on a regular basis through CCTV footages and more recently through mobile Apps like Google maps.

However, there could still be important data which may be unavailable or unrecorded. For these things, more observational work is needed.

Once sufficient data have been gathered, the next logical step is to do an analysis. Make sense of the data. When this is done, we can infer on what may be causing the problem.

This is most often called the hypothesis. There could be several hypotheses which could mean there could also be several possible approaches to solving the problem.

Debating which approach to prioritize is also important because it could potentially lead to a good decision on which one can work best. We don't want to test everything. The less trials before arriving at the solution, the better.

But in the end, an approach would have to be tested to see if it will work or not. And hopefully one will come out to effectively solve the problem and thus shine a light on what really was the root cause to begin with.

That's it! The Engineering Design Process in a nutshell.

This simple approach can be utilized to guide anyone who has to deal with a difficult problem or project. It is systematic and logical so there is a higher chance of success for the problem solver.

Try it and see how well it works for you!

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