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Understanding the engineering design process

Last updated

5 March 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

95% of the nearly 30,000 new products introduced each year fail. The most common reason for this failure is a lack of need for the product. Successful products aren't just innovative ideas, they're solutions to problems shared by groups of people.

To avoid the likelihood of failure, experienced engineers and designers use a structured decision-making process during the product innovation and development phase. This engineering design process facilitates problem-solving through:

  • Innovative thinking

  • Research

  • Learning from failure

It is used to guide product development teams through the process of developing innovative ideas and nurturing those ideas to create products that solve problems for their target audience.

Using the engineering design process, you can identify how your products can solve problems and enable you to troubleshoot issues that could prevent the end product from delivering ideal results.

In this article, we'll explain exactly what the engineering design process is and provide a step-by-step guide for using it for the development of your next product.

What is the engineering design process?

The engineering design process is an iterative process of brainstorming, troubleshooting, and developing a product to solve a specific problem. The steps in the process encourage open-ended problem-solving and learning from failure.

When product designers use the engineering design process, they apply engineering experience, industry knowledge, and technology to design and build solutions for specific problems.

While the process follows a defined pattern, it is iterative to yield the best results. Some steps may be completed out of order or repeated to eliminate issues or examine areas of concern. The engineering design process is commonly used on any project that requires designing, building, and testing a product.

The principles of good engineering design

There are multiple variations of the engineering design process. However, good engineering design incorporates specific underlying principles.

These principles create a foundation to guide the engineering design process:

  • Engineering is a process with defined steps to provide the best solution to a specific problem.

  • The design process is iterative, requiring some steps to be repeated or carried out in a nonsequential format.

  • Analyzing and evaluating different solutions is an essential part of the process, to identify different strengths and weaknesses and follow the design specifications.

  • Failure is expected and used as a learning tool during the process.

Why is engineering design important for innovation?

The engineering design process was developed to create products that meet the needs of a target audience. By taking a structured approach to design that follows a defined path from problem to solution, engineers can research multiple ideas to determine which solution is most viable.

The process is iterative and flexible to encourage creativity. These features combine to create a method that produces innovative thinking and multiple solutions to complex problems.

Benefits of the engineering design process

The engineering design process turns ideas into practical solutions. This structured approach that cultivates creativity and breeds innovation brings several benefits.

Improved product quality

The engineering product design process follows specific steps to ensure every possibility is explored. Since the process promotes problem-solving, working in iterations, and extensive testing, the most innovative ideas bubble to the top for further development.


By using tactics like brainstorming, group thinking, prototyping, and testing, you encourage collaboration between various stakeholders, including:

  • Engineers

  • Designers

  • Manufacturers

Multiple experts working toward a common goal can help you eliminate possible issues or shortfalls before a product is in the hands of customers.

Cost savings

By working with multiple ideas and identifying potential design flaws early in the process, you can greatly reduce the risk of a product going all the way to completion with flaws. Testing throughout the process addresses errors in real time and keeps rework to a minimum.

Faster time to market

Since the process requires teams to often repeat steps multiple times, you may be concerned about the development phase being prolonged. However, the ability to identify potential issues early reduces overall project duration, as less time is spent on revisions later on.

Increased innovation

The engineering design process is centered around creative thinking to promote the best solutions for a specific problem. It is typically carried out by multiple team members and encourages the use of failed projects as stepping stones to a better solution.

A step-by-step guide to the engineering design process

The engineering design process is designed to be versatile to meet the requirements of different types of projects. As such, the process can be adapted to include fewer or more steps.

It's also important to remember that the process is iterative, and steps may be repeated as needed to achieve a specific objective.

These steps cover the basics of the engineering design process.

1. Define the problem you want to solve with your product

To develop an effective solution, you must clearly define the problem, any known constraints to solving it, and the end user's needs.

Once you've identified the problem, clarify why it's a problem and the size of the audience who will be interested in a solution. Examine the problem from different viewpoints to ensure you understand its impact.

2. Ask questions and conduct relevant research

Dig deeper into the reason for the problem and whether potential solutions already exist. Ask these questions to guide your research:

  • Why is this a problem?

  • Why is it important to develop a solution to this problem?

  • Who can the right solution help?

  • Do solutions already exist? If so, why aren't they being used, or how is our solution going to be better?

  • Are there financial, legal, technical, or other restraints that could introduce new requirements for the solution?

3. Imagine possible solutions

Once you have all the information to hand, brainstorm a list of possible solutions.

Generate as many ideas as possible, including unconventional ones. Involve industry experts, employees, experienced professionals, and other stakeholders in the brainstorming process to get multiple perspectives.

Combine all prospective solutions into a list for consideration.

4. Plan

Examine your list and research each proposed solution. List the pros and cons of each solution to rank your list in order of viability.

Eliminate solutions that are less viable or have too many flaws. Continue to narrow down the list until you arrive at the ideal solution.

Draw up a product design to solve the problem while addressing constraints and potential issues that may arise during the build.

5. Develop a prototype

Use your plan to create an early prototype of your product. The prototype should be designed with cost-effectiveness in mind and can be made from different materials than the final product. It's also common to leave finishing touches off early prototypes so that you can concentrate on the overall concept.

6. Test

Once you've created a usable prototype, it's time to conduct testing. Run a series of tests to determine how well the product works, not only in normal operating conditions but also in different conditions that introduce extra stress.

Use the tests to simulate potential real-life scenarios. Even if the prototype is functional, it may not meet all your expectations. Note where the product falls short, so improvements can be made during subsequent iterations.

7. Make improvements

If the prototype is a complete failure, you have choices to make. You can either revisit some of your earlier solutions or brainstorm ideas that will eliminate the problems.

If your prototype didn't meet all your expectations, it can still be called a success. Use your notes to investigate the areas where the prototype under-performed and consider ways to improve these specific issues.

Improve upon your existing prototype or design a new iteration of the prototype and test your product again. Repeat the testing and improvement process as many times as necessary to yield the best possible product.

8. Communicate the results

The final stage of the engineering design process is to share your results. You can create reports, presentations, and displays as needed to share the functionality of your product and why it's the best solution to the problem at hand.

Your documentation will be used to share the product's value with stakeholders and enable the finished product to be manufactured to the required standards. You may need to participate in meetings and presentations to share the results of the engineering design process with managers, engineers, board directors, shareholders, and even potential customers.

Once you have the go-ahead from all decision-makers, you’re ready to build.

Engineering design process examples

The engineering design process can be applied to a broad range of products. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Developing a new gaming app

Let’s imagine you’d like to develop a new app in the form of a game.

  1. Define the problem: What is the problem that your app will solve? Boredom? Lack of mental stimulation? Kids needing to be kept occupied? Parents needing to unwind? Relieving anxiety?

  2. Research: How widespread is this problem? Find out what games are already available that solve this problem. Do they do it well, or is there a gap in the market for a game that will do it better? Are there any good reasons not to develop such a game?

  3. Imagine solutions: With your team and relevant stakeholders, brainstorm as many games as possible. Let your imagination run riot!

  4. Plan: List the pros and cons of each of your game ideas. Narrow down the list and plan a design for the one you decide to go ahead with.

  5. Develop a prototype: The prototype doesn’t need to be complex, just with enough elements to give testers an idea of the game and how it can solve the problem you originally pinpointed.

  6. Test: Find testers to try out your prototype game. Gather feedback from them.

  7. Make improvements: Adjust your prototype based on the feedback from testers. Return to the testing step and keep repeating these two stages (testing and improving) until you have the best possible version of the game.

  8. Share results: Create a report or presentation to communicate your decisions to stakeholders. Convince them of why this is the best solution. Once your game idea is signed off, it’s time to start developing the actual product!

Creating a kitchen appliance

There are so many gadgets available to make our lives easier in the kitchen, and people always seem to want more! Imagine you’d like to be the next big thing in the world of kitchen appliances.

  1. Define the problem: What is the problem that your appliance will solve? Will it save time, effort, or money (or all three?) Will it reduce mess? Maybe it will increase safety in the kitchen or make it easier to create delicious meals.

  2. Research: How widespread is the problem you’re trying to solve? Find out what appliances are already available that solve this problem. Do they do it well, or is there a gap in the market for a better appliance? Are there any good reasons not to create this appliance?

  3. Imagine solutions: Brainstorm as many appliance solutions as possible. Be creative. Nothing is impossible at this stage!

  4. Plan: What advantages and disadvantages are there for each of your appliance ideas? Narrow down the list of possible appliances, and plan a design for your favorite one.

  5. Develop a prototype: This doesn’t need to be made from the same materials as the final appliance, nor does it need to have the same functionality. It needs to be enough for the testers to get an idea of the appliance and how it will solve a particular problem in the kitchen.

  6. Test: Gather feedback from people who are willing to test your prototype appliance.

  7. Make improvements: Adjust your prototype appliance based on the feedback from testers. Return to the testing step and keep repeating these two stages (testing and improving) until your prototype appliance receives no more negative feedback.

  8. Share results: Tell your stakeholders about your appliance through a report or presentation. Convince them of why this is the best solution. Once it is signed off, you can start the production phase.

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