Socio-Technical Systems

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


What are Socio-Technical Systems?

A socio-technical system (STS) is one that considers requirements spanning hardware, software, personal, and community aspects. It applies an understanding of the social structures, roles and rights (the social sciences) to inform the design of systems that involve communities of people and technology. Examples of STSs include emails, blogs, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The basis of STSs is general systems theory, which describes what the disciplines of science have in common—i.e., that they all refer to systems: sociologists see social systems, psychologists cognitive systems, computer scientists information systems, and engineers hardware systems. In general systems theory, no discipline has a monopoly on science—all are valid.

These disciplinary perspectives on computing allow us to view computing through distinct levels and trace its evolution. Computing began at the mechanical level (hardware devices), evolved an information level (devices + software), then acquired a human level (IT + human-computer interaction), and finally a community level (STSs). A community works through people using technology, as people work through software using hardware. Consequently, social requirements are now an important part of computing design.

While sociologists study the social level alone as if it were apart from physicality, and technologists study technology as if it were not part of society, socio-technology is a distinct field of inquiry on how personal and social requirements can be met by IT system design. As such, STSs seek to merge people and technology, viewing the integration of computers into societal systems as the next evolutionary step of humanity. An STS approach to design raises the cost of development but results in complex systems, like social networks, that have far more performance potential. Exploring a design problem by rising to an STS mindset can reveal further dimensions of a design’s use potential and inspire development.

Literature on Socio-Technical Systems

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

All literature

Socio-Technical System Design

Ch 24: Socio-Technical System Design

A socio-technical system (STS) is a social system operating on a technical base, e.g. email, chat, bulletin boards, blogs, Wikipedia, E-Bay, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Hundreds of millions of people use them every day, but how do they work? More importantly, can they be designed? If socio-technical systems are social and technical, how is co...

Book chapter
The Evolution of Computing

Ch 1: The Evolution of Computing

“Computing is evolving to higher levels”   This chapter reviews how computing has evolved since it began, and what this means for "us all" who are building and using it. 1.1 A (very) Short History of Computing The first computer was conceived as a machine...

Book chapter
Design Spaces

Ch 2: Design Spaces

“Customer: 'Which of your cuts are the best?' Butcher: 'All of my cuts are the best.'”   While the previous chapter described computing system levels, this chapter describes how the many dimensions of system performance interact to create a design requirements space. ...

Book chapter
About this book

Ch 0: About this book

0.1 About this book “For Audrey, Alex, Elaine, Elizabeth and the next generations”   A socio-technical system (STS) is a social system operating on a technical base. Email, chat, bulletin boards, blogs, Wikipedia, eBay, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all socio-technical ...

Book chapter
The Future

Ch 7: The Future

“The future is socio-technology not technology”   The future of computing depends on its relationship to humanity. This chapter contrasts the socio-technical and technical visions. 7.1 Technology Utopianism Technology utopianism is the view that technolo...

Book chapter
Socio-Technical Design

Ch 3: Socio-Technical Design

“Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.”   Social ideas like freedom seem far removed from computer code but computing today is social. That technology designers are not ready, have no precedent or do not understand social needs is irrelevant. Like a baby being born, on...

Book chapter
The Social Environment Model

Ch 5: The Social Environment Model

“People are social environment blind”   The social environment model works for any society, modern or traditional, socio-technical or socio-physical, and for any social level or community size. This chapter links the arcane role of society to modern technology. It describes: ...

Book chapter
Polite Computing

Ch 4: Polite Computing

“Politeness makes a community a nice place to be”   This chapter analyzes politeness as a socio-technical requirement 4.1 Can Machines be Polite? Software, with its ability to make choices, has crossed the border between inert machine and social participa...

Book chapter
Online Rights

Ch 6: Online Rights

“Communities prosper by granting citizens rights.”   This chapter relates technology to basic social axioms like: Ownership. To specify object rights to reduce conflicts. Freedom. To own oneself, not to be a slave. Fairness. That social consequences reflect actio...

Book chapter