However, there are limitations to this integrative approach as well. Several authors have argued that models of decision making under uncertainty often do not adequately reflect real-world decision making (e.g. March, 1978; Daft and Lengel, 1986). They propose that often possible future outcomes are not identified or not well defined and that there may be conflict with regard to what these will or should be. These authors state that decision-making and problem solving are often carried out under conditions of ambiguity, rather than uncertainty. Ambiguity is defined as lack of clarity regarding the relevant design variables and their functional relationships. Ambiguity relates directly to Daft and Lengel’s notion (1986) of equivocality, which they define as ‘… ambiguity, the existence of multiple and conflicting interpretations about a situation.’ As a consequence, coping with ambiguity is one of the foremost issues in new product design as the final design is inherently a synthesis of multiple perspectives and views on what the ultimate product should offer to its user.

Allen already alluded to this in his 1977 book, when he explained why direct face-to-face contact is the most effective information channel in innovation settings. It is, he argued, because face-to-face contact does not only help to reduce uncertainty via the sharing of information, but more important still, face-to-face contact makes it easier to unveil and discuss divergences in interpretation on the information being shared. In other words, in an innovation context, we do not only have to consider situations of asymmetric information, but also, situations of asymmetric interpretation of that information. In order to reduce asymmetries in interpretation, the richness of the information and information channels available is of crucial importance.

Face-to-face information exchange is characterized by a high level of media richness. As I will argue later on, three-dimensional parametric representations and models of product designs also carry higher levels of information richness than their traditional two-dimensional representations on calculation sheets and paper drawings. And, this is precisely where the novel design technologies come in. Today, an increasing array of technologies is available that allows for the quick experiential design and development of three-dimensional representations of product forms. This implies that in fitting ‘form’ to ‘context of use’ via the development of the product design hierarchy, we now dispose of techniques that allow us to quickly define three-dimensional forms of the product (either on computer screen as happens with three-dimensional CAD systems such as CATIA, ProEngineer and Unigraphics or in ‘hard’ copy as with three-dimensional Rapid Prototyping techniques as stereolithography, selective laser sintering and 3D inkjet printing).

These experiential product designs can then be confronted with the various stakeholders belonging to its context of use, amongst whom users figure predominantly. In doing so, it is possible to organize a new product design in a most experiential mode, consisting of cycles of iteration based on multiple ‘real’ representations of the product design. It therefore is important to introduce and to emphasize the role of experimentation during the new product development process. Many writings on managing this process have almost exclusively focused on the role of information and information exchange (see for instance the management of part-whole relationships as described by Van de Ven, 1986). However, as observed by Allen (1977), information exchange is (notwithstanding its importance), only a smaller part of the total activity of product designers and engineers. In Table 1, I summarise the activity patterns of designers and designers in innovation projects as Allen observed them.


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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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