Understanding Informed Design through Trade-Off Decisions With an Empirically-Based Protocol for Students and Design Educators

Molly H. Goldstein, Robin S. Adams, Senay Purzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Trade-off decisions, which necessitate striking a balance between two or more desirable but competing features, are a crucial part of design practice. However, they are known to be difficult for student designers to make. While designers, educators, and researchers have numerous methods to assess the quality of design artifacts, these methods are not necessarily easy to use, nor do they indicate design competency. Moreover, they are not grounded in a definition of engineering design. The objectives of this study were twofold. First, we developed a protocol to depict design artifact quality through the lens of design trade-off decisions. We aimed to produce a protocol that:(1) encompasses multiple complementary and competing dimensions, (2) can be applied consistently and systematically, and (3) indicates design competency. We conceptualized a quantitative representation of the degree to which a design artifact addresses human, technical, and economic requirements called the Trade-off Value Protocol. Second, we tested the Trade-off Value Protocol by applying it to 398 middle school students’ design artifacts of energy-efficient homes. We used an etic approach of thematic analysis to identify the patterns of variation therein. We found five distinct patterns of variation in the set of student design artifacts, which suggested certain trends in the way that students address design dimensions and demonstrate varying levels of design competency. The Trade-off Value Protocol isolates an important feature of design competency with which beginning designers often struggle and could be a tool for educators to help students become more informed designers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3
Pages (from-to)25-41
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


  • Decision making
  • Design cognition
  • Design quality
  • Engineering design
  • Informed design
  • Trade-offs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Engineering


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