Enabling design in frontier contexts: a contextual needs assessment method with humanitarian applications

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Green, Matthew Grant

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This dissertation provides foundational knowledge, methods, and tools to equip engineers in discovering, documenting, and acting upon contextual information important for successful product design. These contributions fill a gap in current design methodologies which inadequately support accounting for contextual information. Formally accounting for contextual information is especially challenging when the design context is frontier (unfamiliar) to the designers, as is often the case with high human-need projects. A foundational framework is established for classifying contextual information. An empirical product study is conducted to explore the nature of context scenarios and in what way usage context factors influence customer product preferences. Based on the classification framework, literature search, and empirical study, a contextual needs assessment methodology is developed to assist the designer in discovering and documenting the “how,” “where,” and “who” factors of the context framework. An advanced extension of the methodology employs hierarchical clustering to increase the formality and repeatability of grouping context scenarios and factor values. Case studies provide quantitative and qualitative measures of the usability, usefulness, and designer acceptance of the proposed contextual needs assessment method. The exciting results provide strong justification for the widespread dissemination of the methodology in education as well as in field practice. The proposed methodology and tools hold promise to enhance the success of any customer-driven design process, and especially those in frontier design contexts.