This paper presents a novel approach, referred to as the WordTree design-by-analogy method, for identifying distant-domain analogies as part of the ideation process. The WordTree method derives its effectiveness through a design team’s knowledge and readily available information sources (e.g., patent databases, Google) and does not require specialized computational knowledge bases. A controlled cognitive experiment and an evaluation of the method with redesign projects illustrate the method’s influence in assisting engineers in design-by-analogy. Individuals using the WordTree method identified significantly more analogies and searched outside the problem domain as compared to the control group. The team redesign projects demonstrate the WordTree method’s effectiveness in longer-term, more realistic, higher validity team projects and with a variety of different design problems. Teams successfully identified effective analogies, analogous domains, and analogous patents. Unexpected and unique solutions are identified using the method. For example, one of the teams identified a dump truck and panning for gold as effective analogies for the design of a self-cleaning cat litter box. In the controlled experiment, a cherry pitter was identified and implemented as a solution for designing a machine to shell peanuts. The experimental results also highlight potential improvements for the method and areas for future research in engineering design theory.

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