The design of effective and economically viable wave energy devices involves complex decision-making about the product based on conceptual design information, including stakeholder requirements, functions, components and technical parameters. The great diversity of concepts makes it extremely difficult to create fair comparisons of the relative merits of the many different designs. Conventional design approaches have proved insufficient to guarantee wave energy technologies meet their technical and economic goals. Systems engineering can provide a suitable framework to overcome the obstacles towards a successful wave energy technology. The main objective of this work is to review the well-established systems engineering approaches that have been successfully implemented in complex engineering problems and to what extent they have been applied to wave energy technology development. The paper first reviews how system information can be organised in different design domains to guide the synthesis and analysis activities and the definition of requirements and metrics, as well as the search for solutions and decision-making. Then, an exhaustive literature review on the application of systems engineering approaches to wave energy development is presented per design domain. Finally, a set of conclusions is drawn, along with some suggestions for improving the effectiveness of wave energy technology development.