The need exists to develop foundational knowledge, methods, and tools to equip engineers in discovering, documenting, and acting upon contextual information important for successful product design. In response to this need, this paper addresses a gap in current design methodologies which inadequately support accounting for contextual information. Adequately 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. Based on a classification framework, literature search, and empirical study, a contextual needs assessment methodology is presented to assist the designer in discovering and documenting the “how,” “where,” and “who” factors of the product context. Experimental assessments and an application of the approach to an inventive product design provide both quantitative and qualitative measures of the usability, usefulness, and designer acceptance of the proposed contextual needs assessment method. Additionally, anonymous surveys report equal or greater perceived value of the new method for student design projects when compared with the benchmark of well-established methodologies such as black box and activity diagrams. These exciting results provide strong justification for the widespread dissemination of the methodology in education as well as in field practice.

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