Design at a Higher Level

What does it mean to have a systemic approach to design? It’s not just about striving for a comprehensive understanding of the key components and actors in the system and how they relate to each other. For the complex problems and environments we’re facing today, that’s table stakes. Beyond this, designers must also understand the conditions that brought the system about to begin with. What key forces precipitated the need for the design intervention? Often, the problem we’re being asked to work on is a symptom of a deeper issue.

For example, imagine somebody in your organization has discovered an inefficiency in the way service personnel interacts with customers. You’re being asked to design a system that allows service reps to get a more comprehensive picture of interactions with customers. It’s great if the system you design can resolve the problem, but if it’s even better if the process of doing so also helps resolve the underlying organizational issues that brought it about to begin with.

Often these issues emerge not from technical deficiencies, but from social/political/organizational/interpersonal ones. You won’t find this stuff spelled out in RFPs! Discovering the underlying issues requires you to ask difficult questions. (The five whys framework is useful for this.) It also requires keen observation. Designing in such projects often calls for working with multiple stakeholders, people from groups that may not interact with each other day-to-day. What have you noticed happening among them? Where are the disconnects? Are they using different names to describe the same things — or worse, using the same names to describe different things? Why have these disconnects come about? What contextual conditions led to the situation? Are these conditions still relevant?

On the surface, even a complex system will address a set of requirements. Resolving them will add value to the organization, and (ideally) to society in general. But addressing the issues that brought about those issues to begin with will create even more value — especially if they’re resolved with a generative perspective that accounts for their ongoing evolution.