Machine Intelligence and the Design of Complex Systems

Adobe’s Patrick Hebron, in an interview for Noema (from September 2020):

If you’re building a tool that gets used in exactly the ways that you wrote out on paper, you shot very low. You did something literal and obvious.

The relationship between top-down direction and bottom-up emergence is a central tension in the design of complex systems. Without some top-down direction, the system won’t fulfill its purposes. However, if it doesn’t allow for bottom-up adjustments, the system won’t adapt to conditions on the ground — i.e., it won’t be actualized as a real thing in the world. What’s needed is a healthy balance between bottom-up and top-down.

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The Key to Understanding Why Things Happen

When a systems thinker encounters a problem, the first thing he or she does is look for data, time graphs, the history of the system. That’s because long term behavior provides clues to the underlying system structure. And structure is the key to understanding not just what is happening, but why.

— Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems

Every year, I introduce systems students to the iceberg model. The model is a helpful way of understanding situations by looking ‘beneath the surface’ of the things we experience, to the structures and mental models they manifest.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the iceberg model, it’s a framework that encourages you to think about situations at four levels:

  1. Events, or the tangible manifestations of the situation; the things we can see, hear, and record — “just the facts.”
  2. Patterns we perceive in events; outcomes that happen not just once but manifest time and again.
  3. Structures that may be causing the patterns we perceive; these could include rules, regulations, incentives, etc.
  4. Mental models that bring these structures into being.

Notice the fourth level is more abstract than the first: we can ascertain events, but we must hypothesize mental models. There’s also a causal relationship between levels: mental models elicit structures that elicit patterns of events.

As a result, events are easier to grok than mental models. But as with pace layers, the deep levels are where the true power lies. A change at the level you can see has less impact than tweaking the mental models that bring it forth. The ability to change minds is an incredibly powerful lever.

The iceberg model is helpful when doing research. Research produces lots of data points: Google Analytics and search logs tell you about usage, landscape analyses tell you about competitors and analogs, user interviews tell you about intent, etc.

But research doesn’t stop with data. Insights only emerge once you spot patterns in data. If lots of people enter the same term into the search box and do not get good results, that tells you something important about your system.

But you can go deeper still. Patterns only tell you what is happening, not why. You should at least have a hypothesis about why things are happening. This calls for understanding the underlying structures and the mental models that enable them.

Collaborating on these levels can be uncomfortable since the work is speculative. Acknowledge the awkwardness upfront. Allow the team to speculate. You’re not making anything normative yet, just understanding why things might be happening.

Knowing causes helps produce better outcomes. You might not know causes precisely, but you can test hypotheses. Ultimately, a better understanding of the system’s structures and underlying mental models will lead to more skillful interventions.

Cover image: NOAA’s National Ocean Survey (CC BY 2.0)


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(Re)drawing System Boundaries

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion—the questions we want to ask.

— Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

One of the hardest things about making systems maps is knowing where to stop. You start by identifying the system’s components and how they relate to each other, and soon you find yourself drawn to include the entire world.

Should your map of a new electrical product include details about the power grid? Perhaps not; the grid is assumed infrastructure. But what if the product is an electric car? In that case, access to charging matters, so you may want to reconsider.

Where you draw the boundaries of a system map depends on what questions you’re looking to illuminate. (I keep reminding students about the power of good framing questions.) But drawing a map may also reveal the need for new questions.

Maps help us see unexpected aspects of the situation. We draw them in part to avoid unintended consequences. As such, we must be open to re-drawing their boundaries as the exercise reveals new angles. When we do so, our understanding deepens.

System maps are valuable artifacts per se, but they’re more than that. Map-making is a powerful way of knowing the world and — more importantly — intervening skillfully. It calls for continually asking where the boundaries lie — and reconsidering.

Cover photo by sid (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Not Just a New Feature; a New Compact

David Pierce, writing in Protocol yesterday morning:

Starting on Wednesday, any Slack user will be able to direct message any other Slack user. The new system is called Connect DMs, and works a bit like the messaging apps and buddy lists old: Users send an invite to anyone via their work email address, and if the recipient accepts (everything is opt-in), their new contact is added to their Slack sidebar. The conversations are tied to the users’ organizations, but exist in a separate section of the Slack app itself.

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, writing in Vice a few hours later:

On Wednesday, Slack launched a new feature that allows users to message anyone else via direct messages, even if the receiver is outside of the sender’s organization. In other words, the feature allows anyone to connect with you privately on Slack. Critically, even if the feature is turned off on your Slack, you’ll still get an email notification and message from anyone trying to connect with you—including people who don’t work with you and can use this feature to sneak harassment into your inbox.

After experts in content moderation, and several other people, complained about this risk, Slack is already backtracking and limiting the feature, admitting it “made a mistake.”

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How to Keep a Long-term Focus

Point of view is worth eighty IQ points.

— Alan Kay

Sometimes we face situations that demand an immediate response. A few weeks ago, millions of Americans dealt with unexpected weather conditions that disrupted their ability to keep themselves and their families fed and warm. On February 20, the crew of United flight 328 had to deal with an engine that exploded in mid-air. (Fortunately — and through excellent piloting and engineering — the plane landed safely.) Such life-threatening situations call for skillful action now.

Most situations aren’t as urgent as landing a crippled plane or finding shelter in freezing temperatures. And yet, we often feel the stress of urgency in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps we’re on the hook for meeting this quarter’s KPIs, or we’re running late to take our child to her 10 am martial arts class, or we have a big presentation on Tuesday. Whatever the case, we’re under pressure to deliver now.

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The ‘Culture’ Layer

As someone who cares about the longevity of systems, I love Stewart Brand’s Pace Layer model. In case you’re unfamiliar with the idea, the Pace Layer model explains how complex systems change over time. Such systems don’t change uniformly; instead, they’re composed of elements that vary in scale and rates of change.

The model has roots in architecture, and that’s how I usually introduce it. Mr. Brand’s book How Building’s Learn presents the following version, which is based on the work of architect Frank Duffy:

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Caring as a Core Design Principle

Bruce Mau, in an interview for The Creative Factor:

Being a designer, what you really signed up for is caring. I did a lecture for the Cooper Hewitt about their collection. When I looked at the collection, I thought, What do all these disparate objects have in common? I realized the common denominator is caring. What makes a design product different from other things is that people care more about the user as an individual, not as a consumer, but as a citizen.

Once you care about a person, you can’t not care about their context, right? You can’t have a healthy, vibrant person in a toxic community. And by extension, you have to care about their environment. You can’t have a thriving community in a toxic ecology.

We shift the idea of what design is about from the object and the immediate outcome to life itself—life-centered design, which is an understanding that we are not the center of the universe.

That’s really is it, isn’t it? The quality of the work will be completely different if designers truly care about the people they’re designing for.

Note this isn’t about being “user-centered.” It’s about understanding that our “users” exist in societies and ecosystems. If the thing we design serves user and business needs, but compromises their contexts, then it’s no good. Alas, we focus too much on the design of the parts and not enough on the whole. We value craft over philosophy – even though we, too, live in the same societies and ecosystems.

This interview is in support of Mr. Mau’s new book, MC24. I’m finding much inspiration in its pages; it’s a good salve for these dark times.

Bruce Mau: We Change By Slowly Changing Everything

TAOI: Gmail’s New Conceptual Model

The architecture of information:

Yesterday, Google announced an upcoming Gmail redesign. Here’s an overview:

As you can see, these aren’t cosmetic tweaks, but significant changes to Gmail’s structure. Where previously the app aspired to be a great email client, now its stated goal is to be “your new home for work.” This goal reflects three fundamental premises:

  • Much of what many of us do for “work” consists of coordinating with and informing each other
  • Most of these communications happen over digital channels (especially now that many of us are working “remotely”)
  • Email is no longer the only (or even primary) channel for these communications
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Do You See the Big Picture?

Seth Godin, writing in his blog:

If you experience lousy service or poor quality, it’s probably not solely the fault of the person who talked to you on the phone, dealt with you at the counter or assembled your product.

It’s the boss.

The boss didn’t design the system properly, didn’t align incentives, didn’t invest in training. The boss isn’t thinking hard about hiring the right people. And the boss isn’t listening.

I’m glad to see someone with Mr. Godin’s prominence highlighting the benefits of having a systemic perspective. Many people still think of the products and services they interact with (or worse, manage) as though they exist on their own, in a vacuum.

Of course, they don’t: All products and services are manifestations of systems that influence their performance. The front-line customer experience is the outcome of such a system. To improve the offering, improve the system. But you can’t improve the system if you don’t see or understand it. You must make it tangible to make it “real.”

Design can help: systems mapping and modeling are established practices. What’s needed is for “the boss” to understand that design doesn’t start with giving form to products/services. Instead, it’s a holistic practice that can bring coherence and alignment at a much deeper level – if it starts at a much earlier stage in the process.

Are you “the boss”? Do you understand the systems you’re participating in or creating? Do you know the degree to which your products/services are enabling such systems? If you lack visualizations that help you understand these systems, ask yourself: what do I need to do to see the big picture?

Systems design and the front line | Seth’s Blog