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Response surface methodology (RSM) explores the relationships between several explanatory variables and one or more response variables. The method was introduced by G. E. P. Box and K. B. Wilson in 1951. The main idea of RSM is to use a sequential experimental procedure to obtain an optimal response. Box and Wilson suggest using a first-degree polynomial model to do this. They acknowledge that this model is only an approximation, but use it because such a model is easy to estimate and apply, even when little is known about the process.

An easy way to estimate a first-degree polynomial model is to use a factorial experiment or a fractional factorial design. This is sufficient to determine which explanatory variables have an impact on the response variable(s) of interest. Once it is suspected that only significant explanatory variables are left, then a more complicated design, such as a central composite design can be implemented to estimate a second-degree polynomial model, which is still only an approximation at best. However, the second-degree model can be used to optimize (maximize, minimize, or attain a specific target for) a response.

Some extensions of response surface methodology deal with the multiple response problem. Multiple response variables create difficulty because what is optimal for one response may not be very optimal for other responses. Other extensions are used to reduce variability in a single response while targeting a specific value, or attaining a near maximum or minimum while preventing variability in that response from getting too large.

Significant criticisms of RSM include the fact that the optimization is almost always done with a model for which the coefficients are estimated, not known. That is, an optimum value may only look optimal, but be far from the truth because of variability in the coefficients. Experimental designs used in RSM must make tradeoffs between reducing variability and reducing the negative impact that can be caused by bias.


  • Box, G. E. P. and Wilson, K.B. (1951) On the Experimental Attainment of Optimum Conditions (with discussion). Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series B 13(1):1-45.
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