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April 02, 2024

Solving Complex Problems with Systems Thinking

5 mins read

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Written by

Thelma Van

UX Xpert

Mathias Eifert

Practice Director, Organizational Transformation

It’s no surprise that when designing digital products or developing solutions for problems, we must consider all the different touchpoints the user will have. However, to devise a solution that solves the right problem for the user, we need to gain a holistic understanding of their environment and their needs. In other words, diving deeper to consider the full context in which they live, work, and interact with our product will lead to more successful solutions. This practice is an example of systems thinking, a key principle of Human-Centered Design (HCD).

What is a System?

But first, what is a system? Often, we come across terms like “agents,” “nodes ,” or something similarly abstract when talking about systems, but systems are not just theoretical constructs. In fact, we live our entire lives as “agents” in various systems. In the context of HCD, we are specifically focusing on the user of our product or solution, along with all the components and actors that make up their surrounding environment. Nothing and no one exists in isolation; every person, every object, every application, and every product exists within an environment that not only shapes them but is also shaped by them. As such, we are interested in not only the individual behavior of a system’s components but as well the intricate nature of their relationships and interactions. Thinking about the dynamic interplay between all the components forms the essence of systems thinking.

What is Systems Thinking?

Let’s start by exploring the basics of systems thinking. We’ve established that to understand a system, its behavior, and the impact on any of its component parts, we need to consider both the actions of the individual components or actors, as well as the nature of the relationships between them. Some relationships amplify behaviors and reactions, others create stabilizing feedback loops. It’s also important to remember that systems are not static entities. Instead, they evolve over time in response to both internal processes and external influences, sometimes gradually and other times quite abruptly. Thinking about these continuously changing components, behaviors, and relationships forms the foundation of systems thinking.

In addition, we must also remember that systems themselves don’t exist in isolation. In fact, individual systems are components in larger interactions that we often refer to as “system of systems.” The ability to scale systems plays a significant role in understanding the complexity of the world we live in.

For example, you may be part of a team at your organization with different individuals, relationships, and interactions making up the dynamic of your team system. And your team may roll up to a specific department within the organization, making your team system part of a larger system. Then all the departments come together to form an even larger system – your organization.

Systems Thinking for Digital Products

Systems thinking can be used to examine organic cases, like the previous example, or used to inform digital products. Let’s dive into systems thinking and its implications in the context of user experience (UX), design, and other fields.

When we talk about the behavior, usefulness, and value of a product or process, it’s essential to realize that they are not isolated features. They manifest in the intricate interactions within the larger system. Whether it’s creating user-friendly products or driving organizational change, success hinges on understanding and considering the system in which these changes occur. It’s the holistic response of the entire system to these changes that ultimately shapes the outcomes, often in unexpected and fascinating ways.

Problem-Solving in Different Systems

Changes often arise in a system and create ripple effects that shape the outcomes of a product, process, or application. One framework that can help us navigate problem-solving during times of change is the Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden with collaborators Cynthia Kurtz and Mary Boone in 1999 . The Cynefin framework identifies five unique domains, helping us recognize different problem types within the system and apply appropriate approaches to address them effectively.

Clear Domain: In this domain, we deal with known knowns. The components are known, their interactions are well understood, and the behavior is fully predictable, allowing for clear and straightforward solutions and “best practices.”

Complicated Domain: Here, we face known unknowns. The components are known, but some relevant knowledge is missing, requiring expertise and analysis to find effective solutions, often involving tradeoff decisions between several good options.

Complex Domain: Dealing with unknown unknowns, the complex domain involves unpredictable and emerging factors that demand exploration and iterative approaches to problem-solving.

Chaotic Domain: In chaotic situations, we encounter unknowable unknowns. The focus is on immediate response and stabilization before understanding the underlying issues.

Confusion Domain: In the confusion domain, we are not able to identify the applicable domain, possibly due to unresolved tension between different ideas or bias. If we are aware of this, we can delay a decision until things become clearer, otherwise we are likely to fall into the cognitive trap of acting too quickly based on our default solutioning approaches.

See examples of the 5 domains covered in the Cynefin Framework in our blog: Cynefin 101.

The Importance of Systems Thinking in Human-Centered Design (HCD)

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to understanding and shaping complex systems. It recognizes that everything is interconnected and that any change or action within a system can have ripple effects throughout the entire system. This is especially important in Human-Centered Design, where we are dealing with human behavior and interactions.

When we apply systems thinking to HCD, we can see beyond the individual user and consider their experience in the context of the larger system of which they are a part. This includes their social, cultural, and environmental contexts, as well as the various technologies and processes involved. By taking this broader view, we can better understand how all these factors impact the user experience.

Embracing System Thinking for More Effective Solutions

Thinking of everything as a system is not just a theoretical concept; it’s a practical approach that can transform the way we approach problem-solving and design. Embracing systems thinking allows us to navigate the complexities of our interconnected world, fostering more effective solutions and designs. As an example, Excella’s designers use small, iterative solutioning steps to understand users’ characteristics and needs. Paired with frequent validation within the overall system, our designers are well positioned to create extraordinary user experiences. And as we continue to explore the intricacies of systems thinking, we open doors to innovative approaches that consider the broader context in which everything exists.

Need some help getting started with HCD?

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Thelma Van

UX Xpert

Follow Thelma on LinkedIn

Mathias Eifert

Practice Director, Organizational Transformation

Follow Mathias on LinkedIn

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