A Framework to Embed Systems Thinking into Design Thinking Process

Ketut Sulistyawati
Somia CX Thoughts
Published in
7 min readOct 9, 2023

Welcome to the third article of Systems Thinking in Design, a publication by Somia CX. In the previous two articles, we unpacked the whats and whys of systems thinking. This article covers the next step: How can we then apply the systems thinking mindset into our work, specifically embedding it into our current design thinking process?

In the following framework, we attempt to combine the best of both worlds — uniting the analytical tools of systems thinking with the creative methods of design thinking.

Framework to Embed Systems Thinking into Design Thinking Process

Note: This framework is inspired by IDEO U’s Human-Centered Systems Thinking, The British Design Council’s Systemic Design Framework, and The Double Diamond, Systemic Design Toolkit

This framework is not intended to be prescriptive, rather, it is created to include key systems thinking approaches into the design thinking process which many designers are quite familiar with. In this blended approach, we provoke you to not only zoom in on the problem at hand but also to zoom out to consider the bigger system where the problem space takes place and the interconnected elements in that system.

Mapping The Status Quo

To redesign the system, we need to first see its current state. This mapping can be done collaboratively with stakeholders in the system. The purpose of this mapping is for us to start uncovering the system where our problem space lives — who are the people involved, what are their roles, where does this problem take place in relation to the bigger process, and so on. Mapping the system will also help us to define who we should talk to, themes we want to uncover, or certain processes that we want to understand further.

Collaborative effort to map the system. Image source

1. Define the problem & map the system

Start by defining the problem space that we are trying to solve. This may be based on data that we already have, signals we have been hearing lately, or assumptions that the team has. Create the first iteration of the system map. There are several ways to map the system, such as network maps, journey maps, iceberg maps, etc. We will cover more about these tools in the next article.

2. Research & listen to the system

Collect data to understand the system better. Use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to get rich perspectives. Talk to various stakeholders in the system — both the obvious and the unexpected, observe to understand how things work, or immerse ourselves to develop deep empathy. Review data gathered from surveys, customer calls, employee feedback, and look around at competitors or analogous examples out there.

3. Synthesize & remap the system

Synthesize and make sense of the data gathered to generate insights. Look into underlying motivations, mindsets, and pain points at the individual level. Identify relationships and dynamics between people. Also see how they are related to the processes, tools, and structures within the system. With this new understanding, update the systems map.

4. Reframe the problem & identify leverage points

Based on the insights, reframe the problem. What we think of as the problem in the beginning, may be just a symptom of a deeper root cause. Or, other more important problems may have surfaced through a better understanding of the system. Look at the systems map and identify possible leverage points. A leverage point is a place within the system where a small change can make a big impact, relative to the amount of effort required.

Levers are used to help move a heavy load using less source. Image Source

Several things to consider

As we map the current system, also consider these questions:

  • Who are the non-obvious stakeholders that have a big influence on the system?
  • What boundaries should we pick when mapping the system — not too narrow to limit our creativity, but not too big that it’s overwhelming?
  • Which place within the system where a small change can make a big impact?

Envisioning the Future

Facilitate discussions with the stakeholders to imagine and envision the future state we are working towards. This exercise can help us see similarities and differences in the stakeholders’ heads, and craft a shared vision together. With an aligned future state, we can see the gaps between that vision and the current state, and identify areas where we want to work to bring us closer to that desired future.

Visions start with the ideal future state and then backcast. Image Source

5. Brainstorm ideas and design levers

Using the identified leverage points, brainstorm for ideas and levers of design. Like a physical lever that lets us use a smaller force to move a larger object, a design lever is an initiative that when applied to a particular system multiplies the inputs, or provides “leverage”, to achieve accelerated output. We will cover several possible levers of design in the next article. Generate as many ideas as possible, and then prioritize based on their potential impact and feasibility.

6. Prototype & test solutions

Create prototypes to test selected ideas with stakeholders in the system. Start with low-fidelity prototypes, such as paper prototypes or roleplay, to quickly think with our hands. Scrappy prototypes are good because we can generate many variations within a short amount of time, and we are not too attached to them to throw them away when it does not work. Iterate and gradually move to medium and high-fidelity prototypes by embedding the test results and feedback from stakeholders.

7. Implement the transition

Work with key stakeholders to implement the solutions to transition the system towards the desired future. Implementation is probably the hardest part of the process, and having it represented as one of the steps in the framework really does not justify the effort, duration, and resources required to do this. We will attempt to cover more about implementation in the future series.

8. Measure & get feedback

As the solution is being implemented, measure progress and get feedback to evaluate the effectiveness of the solution and to identify areas to further iterate and improve. Look not only at obvious hard measures — such as time, revenue, and satisfaction, but also softer ones like change in mindsets, the ways people interact, and the system’s dynamics.

Several things to consider

As we envision the future, consider these questions:

  • What is the future state that the stakeholders envision to be? How far is it from today?
  • What could be the unintended consequences of the solution?
  • What are possible early indicators of progress to evaluate the impacts of the interventions?

More on unintended consequences

As we ideate, prototype, test, and implement the solution, watch out for possible unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are the results of an action that differ from the expected outcome. Unintended consequences can be either positive or negative. Look for ways to tweak or change the solutions should negative unintended consequences arise. We may not fully realize the unintended consequences of our solution until it is implemented, but starting to think about it early on can help us avoid the obvious ones.

End Note

If we zoom out again to look at the framework, we can notice that many of the points covered here are part of the design thinking process or human-centered design approach. Some are additional touches from the systems thinking approach: systems mapping, leverage points and levers of design, unintended consequences, and to some extent, future envisioning.

In the next article, we will cover some of these concepts in further detail, including some tools and mindsets that can be helpful in applying systems thinking to our design work. Don’t forget to follow us at Somia CX Medium to be the first one to know when we release the next articles!

Note that we will not cover design thinking tools there, as they are more widely available and some are covered in another publication by Somia CXKuali: The CX Cookbook.

If you are interested in learning more about how some organizations have used Systems Thinking approach to solve complex problems, from the area of financial inclusion, and digital healthcare, to policy making, from human systems to tech perspectives, let’s hear directly from our curated speakers!

SomiaCX is hosting a Systems Thinking in Design conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8 November 2023. Get your ticket at somiaconference.com.

Systems Thinking in Design — somiaconference.com

Sulis is a director and principal consultant at Somia CX. I sometimes write about my reflections on experience design, research, and general life here. Let’s connect on Linkedin 👋