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System thinking for designers

This article was originally published on Design Voices, our design blog. Find it here.           By: Firat Toroglu and Michelle Mulvey

What is happening in the world?

In our work we regularly deal with asks from clients like:

What is the best experience we can provide to the end-user with this new service?

What is the outcome we are trying to achieve in the online experience?

How might we design a tool that bridges customer expectation and company vision?

These questions ask us to create for a user. In response, we will give form to a concept and endeavour to make it useable, valuable and desirable to them. We will develop the experience surrounding that entity; determining how it might respond and react to continuously meet demands.

This is design thinking as is being used in and by businesses; prioritising the user needs to build products and services. We have trained, studied and practiced to have the means and know-how to address these. Sometimes we get the answer just right and have the most wonderful sense of accomplishment.

However, we’re finding that not all our clients questions are answerable in this way, life has become more complicated.

“Thinking through the ecosystem of touch points is simply more complicated than in the past.”

— Olof Schybergson, CXO Accenture Interactive in conversation with The Wall Street Journal (Rhodes, 2020).

We are now designing products that are increasingly reliant on a myriad of tangible and intangible interdependencies. This has led to a change in the questions we’re getting from clients, for instance:

How can postal companies meet the demand for faster, cheaper delivery?

How can we transform transparency in support of sustainability targets in the fashion industry?

How might we identify the most informed targets for drug discovery using human data?

The scale, velocity and difficulty of business continues to escalate, therefore so will the problems we are using design thinking to address.

“A full 80% of respondents believe systems will interact seamlessly with humans, and 78% think these systems will embrace the way humans work.”

— Accenture’s Future Systems (Burden, et al., 2019)

The Future Systems research demonstrates client expectation for the solutions they buy into. Companies are making vast investments in technology but need it to be integrated across their organisation and not just in “pockets” (Burden, et al., 2019). That can mean multiple geographies, infrastructures, cultures, users and needs.

There has been a fundamental shift in what we are being and should be held accountable for. This year in Fjord Trends we advocated for life-centred design, inspired by John Thackara’s call to design for all life on earth and not just us, the humans (Fjord, 2020). It is a large and daunting ask but we need to acknowledge that the scope of our responsibilities has expanded not just as professionals but as individuals.

We’re dealing with AI, machine learning, voice/facial recognition, AR/VR, ethics, privacy, sustainability, bottom lines, accessibility, inclusivity… and that all needs to fit together and be managed. We’re building, changing and working with systems.

The ask from us has changed rapidly. Yet, how do we evolve from being user experience experts to system level decision making enablers for our teams? How do we build systems that improve and consider experiences beyond the direct end users? We need to level up. We can do that by using not just design thinking but systems thinking as well.

Hold up, what is systems thinking?

System thinking has many explanations. For Peter Senge, who is a leading system scientist in his field:

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.”

— Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 2006)

Each discipline in the systems community has their own definition of systems design depending on their expertise and focus. It is constantly redefined by those thinkers and difficult to be explained in just one sentence. As well as sure to start an argument if you tried.

The question shouldn’t be ‘what systems thinking is.’ It should be ‘What system thinking means for designers.’ As designers, we need to define systems thinking in a way based on how design practice perceives the world.

It is not a definition but a lens you use to examine a problem. Using systems thinking in design means not looking at individual elements like an interface, product, user journey or service but the whole system of which all these parts are. As Senge has stated above, we need to watch a system to grasp how it’s working; how actions play out overtime, the push and pull between parts, what causes reactions and maintains balance.

Using systems thinking with design thinking means we switch between the holistic and the user view continuously. We endeavour to harmoniously blend both of these mentalities to build mental models of that system to inform us on how and where we should intervene.

But how do we move our approach from design thinking?

Why we need to evolve as designers


“For years, the application of user-centered and human-centered design advocated by so many has often separated people from ecosystems. Now, designers must start to address people as part of an ecosystem rather than at the center of everything. This means designing for two sets of values: personal and collective.

— Fjord Trends 2020 (Fjord, 2020)

Let’s look at this in practical terms of how we need to work with these “two values” (Fjord, 2020). Design thinking starts with the user. We try to discover and understand their needs in order to meet them somehow.

Take a chair for example, a solitary chair, chosen by the user for form, function or both to fulfill their needs.

This chair is connected to nothing apart from the person sitting in it but what might it mean for that person if it did more? Jacinta Dixon was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s. As an avid reader, one of the harshest realities of that diagnosis is dyslexia. She lost her ability to read, something that was so important to her.

The Dock, Accenture’s Global Innovation hub, in collaboration with Design Partners and Amazon, worked with Jacinta to create a new chair (featured on the Big Life Fix) that might bring back that joy we find in new worlds, characters and realities.

Using voice technology offered a promising possibility for the team but because this was very personal, they needed it to feel comfortable for Jacinta. Their concept re-imagined a reading chair; by embedding this technology into it they designed a way for her to access an ecosystem of audiobooks, music and radio as well as voice assistant feedback for weather, time and calendars. The team engineered custom tactile controls, with each having its own unique signature to create recall with muscle memory rather than standard visual ques.

The work and result achieved by this team proves the value of user-centered design. But why are we discussing this in relation to systems-centered design? The project team consciously made the decision to limit how the chair was connected to other products and services as they felt it could be unmanageable for their user and contrary to the comfortable (non-intrusive) environment, she wanted within her home.

However, let us imagine what it might be like in the right circumstances, for the once simple chair to be plugged into a much wider ecosystem. We will now zoom out and look at this with a system-centered design mindset. After all many of our projects still start with a user focus to gain an initial understanding before we move to a systems view.

Here we can see the chair evolves and the implications of it being connected to this wider network. This is inspired by the work of Michael E. Porter, James E. Heppelmann and the diagram they used in How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition — HBR to demonstrate connected products on farms (Hepplemann & Porter, 2014). Illustration: Daniel Eames Visual designer at Fjord Dublin. 

From the systems lens we start to look at how a chair like this needs to fit and connect within a wider ecosystem, in ways that are both mandatory, essential and beneficial. For example, integrating with other connected products or services; like smart thermostats to keep warm while being stationary or the doorbell if someone calls or remote home security monitoring.

And then what about the integration between different companies for the different parts, how it effects their product eco-system. It is not just about visualising the a spider web of connections but also the knock-on effect between them. We need to understand the story being told between system parts. What is the cost of creating this chair to the planet, the workers and end users? When we zoom-out we may need to think of the wider community, what is its effect on hospitals as well as the state systems such as healthcare that it will reach to.

Extending our thinking beyond the user, the product, service and into the wider system that connects or disconnects these multiple entities allows us to start looking at the problem from a new perspective. This is the system practice; if we think of the user as the center we are starting from the outside and working in. It requires us to understand the interdependencies between the questions and problems we have at each level. As we move through those levels, from product to business to community systems, changes emanate and ripple. We need to be cognisant of the trickle down or upstream flow of what we do and systems thinking provides the context for us to do that.

With questions coming at us from a systems level we need to equip ourselves with the means to answer them in new ways. We have great skills but in terms of complex systems we need to extend our design capabilities by learning systems theory, adapting our mindset and adding complimentary methods.

How do we do this without becoming overwhelmed or maintain the ability to critically assess the problem when it extends like this? System design can provide the tools to help us navigate this complexity.

First we need to adjust our mindset

Design thinking absolutely works but working this way will give us the flexibility to weave in and out of the different perspectives. System-centered design is more than a toolkit that we can pick and choose from, it requires a fundamental shift in how we think. We need to align our mindset with the approach.

System and design thinking work together harmoniously. Illustration: Daniel Eames visual designer at Fjord Dublin.

Design thinking is user centred, its methods ask us to identify and understand their problems to provide better and novel experiences based on the bottom-up. With systems thinking we flip that perspective. The lens is to understand how the consequences of a solution affects the overall system based on top-down holistic view.

System-centered design is user-centred but at scale. We continuously need to zoom-in and zoom out to recognise and look for dependencies between different parts of a system. For designers, the required mindset shift is not about leaving design thinking behind, it is more about incorporating system thinking mindset so that we can cover more ground with the impact our work has. It is about asking even bolder questions at system level.

The system scientist Barry Richmond puts it simply, “That is, people embracing Systems Thinking position themselves such that they can see both the forest and the trees (one eye on each).” (Richmond, 1994)Our design thinking is extremely good at seeing and understanding the individuals but here’s the shift we need to make:

System and design thinking mindset characteristics. Some of these characteristics are referencing Hugh Dubberly’s presentation, “Compostmodern: Think Even Bigger. Framing design as conversations about systems” and specifically the transition to a systems approach for designers, (slide 30). Here he talks about moving from the need to ‘seek simplicity” to “embrace complexity” and moving to a “good enough for now” attitude. (Dubberly, 2016) Illustration: Daniel Eames visual designer at Fjord Dublin.

The ability to constantly zoom in and out will help in adjusting your approach and be system focused. That is the most important piece of information you need to take from this.

Here’s what this approach looks like

This is not just a theory, the Fjord team at the Dock, have incorporated this into our practice. Always successful? Absolutely not, it’s been all of the clichés; continuous learning curve, up-hill battle etc.

At the Dock our aim is to extend service and product design from focusing on the human experience of a product or service to considering the purpose of a system. The intention is to address the whole by devising and understanding it’s individual parts, that way we can work out how we can better facilitate the system’s desired purpose.

What does a systems practice mindset look like on the job? Let’s go back to the three how might we statements from the beginning that exemplified the need for something more.

How might we identify the most informed targets for drug discovery using human data?

The ask was to investigate introducing AI as an assistive technology in drug discovery but how? And more importantly why? As with many projects this started with the introduction of a new technology but while AI may be able to improve many things it must be integrated correctly. The incorporation of new technology to a current system requires an understanding of the whole, we needed a systems focus and mindset.

We would need to design future processes and products. This would require a change in their ways-of-working and the technological infrastructure. Not only to fit but to provide value to everyone involved. We created system blueprints detailing pain points (zoomed in) with their system level root causes (zoomed out) to look at how we would address these at systemic level, it was problem orientated. This created a narrative around the current system to influence decision makers and show them the implications as well as possibilities of change.

How can we transform transparency in support of sustainability targets in the fashion industry?

We brought together an ecosystem of partners in the retail value chain to reframe the problem to be solved. The research was conducted at a systems level and having this holistic view allowed us to design and propose concepts for new ways of working.

The research explored the extensive intricacies of supply chain within the textile industry and captured the as is state based on 21 different companies. What the team built using that research facilitated discussion amongst experts. When we shift our mindset towards system thinking it becomes easier to accept ‘good enough for now’ (Dubberly, 2016) because you are striving less for experience perfection and more for knowledge.

How can postal companies meet the demand for faster, cheaper delivery?

We explored how Accenture postal, courier and retail clients can address the challenges posed by a rapidly evolving eCommerce delivery environment. Starting with the postal industry as our focal point, a cross-disciplinary team collaborated closely with partner clients to create a next-generation delivery system by augmenting the workforce to help them deliver a better service with AI amplified route optimisation and demand forecasting.

This new system would need to balance the conflicting goals of all the different elements and actors; like the consumers demand for speed and flexibility with the challenging cost and logistics environment that delivery providers need to operate within. An example of this balance was considering the goals of the AI powered demand forecasting module and the reality faced by delivery agents in the field such as traffic, incorrect addresses and bad weather. Demand forecasting needed to accommodate such variables, for example by avoiding routes with heavy traffic or enabling delivery agents to manually override suggested routes or sequences when appropriate and re-factor these changes into the broader system.

At Fjord, systems design is essential to our Designed Intelligence capability that focuses on human collaboration with artificial intelligence. AI, like any technology should not be designed in isolation. Its successful deployment and adoption depends on how it fits with existing people, practices and processes. In our experience Systems design gives us the right context to know how AI can be integrated into an organisation responsibly and effectively.

“If we can design systems that effectively blend peoples skills with AI, we’ll be able to devise disruptive business strategies, empower people to cope with increasing complexity in the workplace and enhance the human experience.”

— Fjord Trends 2020 (Fjord, 2020)

System-centered design in necessary

We can see from these design questions that complexity will be the new constant for designers (and if you think we’ve always tackled complexity, think of this as complexity 2.0). To respond we need to take the dual approach of looking at problems from the bottom-up and top-down. Systems thinking will more and more become a necessary extension to our design thinking practice.

At the Dock some of our team have taken on this role of Service and Systems designers where we tackle problems with this dual approach. In that role we’re learning to come at challenges from the human experience but also investigating the ripple effect of introducing or altering an element in a system and seeking to understand dependencies between different parts.

This is our strategy to level up and meet these new challenges head on; systems thinking, addressing the complex whole and remembering to constantly zoom in and zoom out. We are designers and putting the user at the centre is what we do. It’s engraved in our understanding of the world. By incorporating system-centered design into our practice we can deliver better experiences and outcomes at each level. We can make it work.

Works cited

Burden, A., Ghosh, B. & Wilson, J., 2019. Accenture Future Systems Report. Scale Innovation And Achieve Value With Future Systems. Accenture Research, pp.3,6,15[Online] Available at:
[Accessed 7 April 2020].

Dubberly, H., 2016. Compostmodern: Think Even Bigger. Framing Design As Conversations About Systems. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 5 May 2020].

Fjord, 2020. Fjord Trends 2020. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 April 2020].

Hepplemann, J. E. & Porter, M. E., 2014. How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 17 April 2020].

Rhodes, M., 2020. Experience Designers Race to Keep Up With Technology. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 11 May 2020].

Richmond, B., 1994. System Dynamics/Systems Thinking: Let’s Just Get On With It. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed May18 2020].

Senge, P. M., 2006. The Fifth Discipline — The Art & Practice of the Learning Organizations. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

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