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Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Your constantly-updated definition of Complex Socio-Technical Systems and collection of topical content and literature

What are Complex Socio-Technical Systems?

Complex socio-technical systems are intricate societal and global problems: challenges where designers strive to define human problems, understand the far-reaching implications of these and address them carefully. As they are hard to approach and understand, designers try incremental steps toward sustainable solutions.


“The designer simply cannot predict the problems people will have, the misinterpretations that will arise, and the errors that will get made.”

— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience” (from The Design of Everyday Things)


See why complex socio-technical systems can be wickedly intricate, but not hopelessly impossible.

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 The World is Complex, the Human World even more so

Cognitive science and usability engineering expert Don Norman differentiates complex socio-technical systems from wicked problems. Although the two are essentially the same, Norman states the latter term is overused and has too many different meanings. Nevertheless, wicked problems are:

●      Difficult to define.

●      Complex systems.

●      Difficult to know how to approach.

●      Difficult to know whether a solution has worked.

Many global problems have these qualities. They’re too massive and intricate to “solve” — take world peace as an example. But more solvable-looking problems (e.g., global warming) also have hordes of complex, intertwined issues within them. Often, these smaller issues are entangled with political agendas and various factors that make them hard to understand let alone solve. What appears to be a simple approach is often an insignificant part of a very large problem. For example a socio-technical system could be (e.g.) healthcare-related, and some fantastically straightforward “good idea” might spring to mind. But then, it’s almost certain that many others (including experts) have already tried and discovered how that “good idea” can’t work.

Much of the trouble with considering such systems is because of the human brain. It’s used to seeing direct results in causal or cause-effect chains; “If I do X, Y happens.” Evolutionarily, we humans are designed to understand simple causes and immediate results: We throw a rock, and we see it fall to the ground. On the other hand, complex socio-technical systems such as climate change are hard to understand because the human mind is not designed to understand something that complex. In design, we’re used to having the convenience of getting feedback through, for example, usability testing. But the human brain can’t understand the complexities of world systems. Take recycling, for example; many people have grown used to considering it more in terms of collective responsibility. However, we’re not used to thinking on a grander scale in terms of the many — often invisible — ways our environment reacts to the effects of our actions, purchasing choices and habits. Complex socio-technical systems are difficult to analyze because:

●      Many systems have several feedback loops. When you do something, result A might not appear but instead impact something else you can’t perceive (result B) and then affect other things. Only when a threshold is crossed might the first result you notice appear (e.g., result J).

●      There could be a long delay between triggering actions and the first noticeable results. Sometimes, so much time might pass that causes are only traceable through deep investigation and systems analysis.

This complexity is why Norman points the way to 21st century design and humanity-centered design. When we’re facing highly involved, massively-scaled human problems enmeshed in complex systems, we can’t use the same approach we might take for, say, an app (e.g., using design thinking alone).

Trash littered on a beach.

Everything is a system, and problems spill over into other areas.
© Lucien Wanda, CC0

How to Handle Complex Socio-Technical Systems

We’ll never be able to solve some problems plaguing our world. How could we even tell if world peace occurred, for example? Still, we can do something to at least improve matters from one situation/project to the next and improve the world in little sections. Namely, we can leverage humanity-centered design to:

●      Use people-centered design to tap a population’s insights and keep them invested.

●      Solve the right problem, after in-depth consideration and (e.g.) using the 5 Whys method.

●      See everything as a system, and use systems thinking.

●      Take small and simple steps towards sustainable solutions. Specifically, use muddling through or incrementalism:

  • Big problems demand big solutions, but big solutions are too expensive, disruptive and prone to failure. Be pragmatic and “go small."

  • Once you understand the people you want to help, their situation’s realities and what their environment lets them do, wait for an opportunity to do something small but helpful. Then, see if it works well enough to either repeat/duplicate or improve. If it fails, it’s still small enough that it won’t spell disaster. Learn from it and use that knowledge to shape something that will work.

  • Small steps will also be more likely to win the community’s support. They happen quickly enough for people to see these aren’t hollow promises, and can even provide life-saving results.

  • Success breeds success. If a small step leads to more victories, you’ll win even more community support.

  • Small steps taken at the right time can lead to the “best solution possible” at any future point — in contrast to a “big fix” taking (e.g.) 10 years, when the whole situation, including the nature of the problem will have changed.

Overall, be sure to work with the community leaders every step of the way.The four principles of Human-Centered Design are People-Centered, Solve the Right Problem, Everything is a System, and Small & Simple Interventions.

© Daniel Skrok and Interaction Design Foundation, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Learn More about Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Take our 21st Century Design course: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-for-the-21st-century

Read this Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation article for in-depth views of complex socio-technical systems : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S240587261530037X

The principal of Fit Associates shares further, fascinating insights: https://medium.com/rettigs-notes/notes-on-sociotechnical-systems-design-178f161bc9e8 

Literature on Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Here’s the entire UX literature on Complex Socio-Technical Systems by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Take a deep dive into Complex Socio-Technical Systems with our course Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman .

In this course, taught by your instructor, Don Norman, you’ll learn how designers can improve the world, how you can apply human-centered design to solve complex global challenges, and what 21st century skills you’ll need to make a difference in the world. Each lesson will build upon another to expand your knowledge of human-centered design and provide you with practical skills to make a difference in the world.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”

— Don Norman

All Literature

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