Capturing Human Sequence-Learning Abilities in Configuration Design Tasks through Markov Chains

McComb, C., Cagan, J., and Kotovsky, K.

2017, Journal of Mechanical Design, vol. 139(9), pp. 1-12

Designers often search for new solutions by iteratively adapting a current design. By engaging in this search, designers not only improve solution quality but also begin to learn what operational patterns might improve the solution in future iterations. Previous work in psychology has demonstrated that humans can fluently and adeptly learn short operational sequences that aid problem-solving. This paper explores how designers learn and employ sequences within the realm of engineering design. Specifically, this work analyzes behavioral patterns in two human studies in which participants solved configuration design problems. Behavioral data from the two studies is first analyzed using Markov chains to determine how much representation complexity is necessary to quantify the sequential patterns that designers employ during solving. It is discovered that first-order Markov chains are capable of accurately representing designers’ sequences. Next, the ability to learn first-order sequences is implemented in an agent-based modeling framework to assess the performance implications of sequence-learning abilities. These computational studies confirm the assumption that the ability to learn sequences is beneficial to designers.