Monday, January 21, 2008

Pitt Studies What Makes a Great Idea

Why do some ideas for new products soar, while others flop? That's the subject of a new study at the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers are observing students in Pitt's engineering school.

Associate psychology professor Chris Schunn says they've already noticed one thing: if engineers create a physical model too early in the design process, it can limit their thinking. He says the phenomenon is called "design fixation." Engineers become too attached to something they can see in front of them even after it becomes obvious that it will fail.

Schunn cites an experiment in which two teams were told to design a spill-proof cup. One team was shown a cup with a straw and told to avoid that type of design, because straws always leak. The other team was not given any additional information. The result? The team that was shown the drawing designed a cup--with a straw--that leaked. The other team's design was better.

Schunn says the goal is to figure out how engineers in the United States can be more innovative. The U.S. used to dominate in engineering, but that's slipping away. By 2010, 90% of engineers will be in Asia. Schunn says losing those kinds of jobs will hurt the U.S. because product innovation is where companies make the most money.

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