Why Systems Thinking Matters

Originally written for the Four Kitchens Blog. Inspired by Confab Central 2017.

There is an incredible payoff in pinpointing a singular problem, strategizing a solution and bringing a vision to life. Knowledge work usually doesn’t offer such clear feelings of accomplishment because, often times, the solution shines a light on a whole host of other issues. But as we come to appreciate the intricacies and complexities connecting these different issues, we can see more clearly the impact that our decisions have on the entire system.

Businesses are realizing that they can’t design in a vacuum. Human-centric design has moved from the fringe to center stage. The people who design and build products and websites are considering the user’s goals, motivations, preferences and biases. But seeing users as whole people isn’t enough, we must also consider the context in which they are having an experience. By observing the environments in which users interact with a product or service—looking at the web of influences connected to that moment—we are able to better understand what may be affecting a user’s experience. We begin to see the how the whole relates to the parts.

…seeing users as whole people isn’t enough, we must also consider the context in which they are having an experience

Tapping into the deeper need

A customer’s experience with a brand does not take form into consideration. If they have a terrible experience trying to pay their bill, they don’t consider it a problem with the website, they consider it a problem with the service. Whether they’re having an in-person experience at a registration window, receiving an email, paying a bill online, or attending a class, there is a common thread throughout which is: “how are my needs being met?”

There are basic human needs (respect, community, agency, autonomy, efficacy, understanding, etc.) that underpin any sort of transactional needs that might occur. Tuning into these needs through ethnographic research and customer experience exercises like journey mapping can transform an interaction from completing a transaction to building a relationship. If those needs are met, good feelings will ripple out, creating the lens with which the user views their experiences.

Guide to Practical Service Blueprinting

In service design, we are introduced to the concept of “frontstage” and “backstage” actions and interactions. While it would be lovely if we could successfully shield our users from what is happening backstage, I’ve never seen it happen. Margot Bloomstein explains this concept beautifully as: “you have an underwear problem,” that is, what’s broken behind the scenes (backstage) is showing through to the users.

Internal people, tools and workflows have everything to do with output. While it may be tempting to ignore the backstage and focus solely on the front, doing so dooms us to make new (perhaps prettier) versions of the same problems.

From Eileen Webb’s “Coaching Success: Training strategies for building strong teams” presentation.

Steadying the Rudder

As someone who naturally thinks in systems, who can’t help but see the interconnectivity of things, I have to be mindful not to become The Complexity Maker. I have to make sure my “5 Whys” stop at five. The beauty of a discovery phase is that, at the end of the process, arbitrary opinion and singular whims (including mine) are pushed aside. The goals we set together, in a co-creation model, become our rudder. “Does X move Y goal forward?” rather than “I don’t like X.”

In addition to shifting the script from subjective to objective, Discovery also works to generate consensus and clearly define a path forward. As we’re piecing together this big picture, we often come in contact with tempting threads we’re not able to pull. This is why we separate out Discovery from Definition. Discovery shows us all the possibilities, Definition narrows this down to a reasonable scope. While we may not be able to address everything at once, looking at the system in its entirety paves the way for improvements down the road.

…looking at the system in its entirety paves the way for improvements down the road.

Walking the Line

It can be a tightrope walk between acting in integrity (e.g., not letting our clients spend loads of money on re-skinning the same problems) and living in the reality of resources and timelines.

Sometimes we’re able to dig deeply into the audience, systems, tools and processes that feed into a website — that make it a living, dynamic thing — and also spend time with users understanding needs, values and behaviors. These are the scenarios UX designers dream about. They are what open doors to product innovation and brand loyalty.

Sometimes we do just enough research, and that’s also great—not every situation demands a deep dive. Constraints create diamond moments. Performance and efficiency are where we can shine. Maybe we don’t get to solve all the problems, but the problems we do solve are solved thoughtfully and strategically with clear metrics in place to inform our next iteration. Research is the key differentiator between a gamble and an investment.

Research is the key differentiator between a gamble and an investment.

By looking at all the inputs and outputs within an organization, as well as the influences that are impacting our users’ experiences, we can begin to craft implementation workflows that are sustainable for an organization and products that connect to user needs throughout their journey.