“Systems thinking” is a way of seeing the connections and interdependence of individuals in an environment. Systems thinking takes a higher level approach to design, compared with a user-centric approach.
A systems thinking approach observes and speaks to the team around the individual user, including the norms and organizational structure of how the user accomplishes their goals. Let’s look a little deeper.
Why is Systems Thinking Relevant to Design?
Systems thinking is particularly relevant in design as individual users have a natural dependence on other people as they navigate their organization under a team structure. By understanding the inter-relatedness of the collective system, designers can better design for an effective flow of user behavior through their entire ecosystem.
“No man is an island” — John Donne
Put simply, the more designers that understand their users’ industry and business model, the better the product’s experience will be.
Understanding systems that users operate within requires both observed and researched data, and a careful look at the formal and informal rules and processes for how the user behaves within their team.
One way to use systems thinking is to frame problems into chunks of information and the connections and relationships between those chunks. This takes advantage of the unseen mental model that users have–a model which makes their perspective of the world more intuitive and usable. By following the mental model framework, you can design products and experiences which fit into the day to day context of your users.
For example, you may discover that there is a primary decision maker on the team who takes responsibility for buying the team’s software, or the chain of communication that occurs when a team has to fix a problem. By noting the journey of a team in the overall experience rather than having a narrow view of one user, you can better enhance the product design to allow for enhanced teamwork, controlling what helps the different responsibilities that individuals may have within their team.
Systems thinking addresses the question of “Who are we designing for?” to suggest that users often rely on teamwork and collaboration to navigate their daily work and that products need to address the context-specific needs of a team, rather than specific individual needs.