Systems Thinking

Your constantly-updated definition of Systems Thinking and collection of videos and articles

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is an approach that designers use to analyze problems in an appropriate context. By looking beyond apparent problems to consider a system as a whole, designers can expose root causes and avoid merely treating symptoms. They can then tackle deeper problems and be more likely to find effective solutions. 

“You have to look at everything as a system and you have to make sure you're getting at the underlying root causes.”

— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience” 

See why systems thinking helps prevent wasted time and resources on the wrong problem.

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Apple's headquarters at Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, USA. by Joe Ravi (CC-BY-SA-3.0) 

Everything is a System: Think of Each as One

Systems surround us, including within our own bodies, and they’re often highly complex. For example, that’s why doctors must know patients’ medical histories before prescribing them medicines. However, our brains are hardwired to find simple, direct causes of problems from the effects we see. We typically isolate issues we notice by considering how to combat their symptoms, since we’re more comfortable with “If X, then Y” cause-and-effect relationships. Cognitive science and usability engineering expert Don Norman identifies the need for designers to push far beyond this tendency if they want to address serious global-level problems effectively. That’s why systems thinking is not only an essential ingredient of 21st century design but also a principle of human-centered design.

The concept of systems thinking emerged in 1956, when Professor Jay W. Forrester of MIT’s Sloan School of Management created the Systems Dynamic Group. Its purpose was to predict system behavior graphically, including through the behavior over time graph and causal loop diagram. For designers, systems thinking is therefore vital to tackling larger global evils such as hunger, poor sanitation and environmental abuse. Norman calls such problems complex socio-technical systems, which, like wicked problems, are:

●      Difficult to define.

●      Complex systems.

●      Difficult to know how to approach.

●      Difficult to know whether a solution has worked.

The danger of not using a systems thinking approach is that we might oversimplify a situation, take problems out of context, treat symptoms and end up making matters even worse. Norman considers electric vehicles an example of an apparently good solution (to pollution) that can obscure what should be the real focus. If the fuel source that generates their electricity comes from coal, etc., it defeats the purpose and, worse, could cause even more world-damaging pollution, especially if so much electricity perishes between the generating source and the consumers’ power supply.  

Systems thinking is the third principle of Human-Centered Design. The other principles are Peopl-Centered, Solve the Right Problem, and Small & Simple Interventions.

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

How to Use Systems Thinking in Design

Systems thinking is also the third principle of humanity-centered design; therefore, integrate it within this approach:

●      Be people-centered. Spend a long time living among the people you want to help, to understand the true nature of their problems, their viewpoints and solutions they’ve tried. For example, a village’s crops might be failing even though the water source seems adequate.

●      Solve the right problem. Closely examine the factors driving the people’s problems. Try the 5 Whys approach. E.g., the soil is damp enough, so might it be exhausted of nutrients? Or does it contain toxins? Why? Sewage? If not, what then?

●      Consider everything as a system. Now, leverage systems thinking to untangle as many parts of the problem(s) as possible. Complex socio-technical systems such as (potential) famine demand hard investigation and working alongside others: principally, the community concerned; so:

  • Keep consulting the community leaders for their insights into the problems you uncover.

  • Evaluate the feedback loops. E.g., the collected clean water from a small stream and secondary well should be enough to irrigate the village’s few fields. The people seem to be doing things correctly: using pipes and a small ditch they’ve diverted from the stream and enclosed using plastic sheets strung over metal frames. The soil is adequately fertilized; the farmers water after dusk (operating taps and a sluice from the tunnel). Still, the problem persists.

  • Dig past the apparent problems to root causes. E.g., thinking of the village’s irrigation system as a system, you notice it’s not the amount of water or soil quality. The water is slightly too hot — due to the dark-colored plastic pipes and the black plastic sheeting of the improvised tunnel — for the crops to handle.

●      Proceed towards a viable solution using incrementalism:

  • Wait for the opportunity to do a small test of the small-scale solution you’ve co-created with the community. E.g., fortunately, here, a good solution involves just lightening the color of the irrigation system to reflect sunlight. The village has enough white paint for the pipes, and you collect white sheeting and tarpaulins to cover the stream tunnel.

  • If it’s successful, evaluate how successful; then adapt and modify it or repeat it several times until you fine-tune a sustainable solution. E.g., fortunately, you just need to find more light-colored tarpaulins.

Overall, systems thinking is about reframing a problem to expose its addressable underlying causes. Thinking broadly, you can deduce real problems and stop to consider potential solutions with (e.g.) design thinking. That’s how community-driven projects — and people-centered design — arrive at inventive, economical and culturally acceptable best-possible solutions.

At Ta Prohm's ancient temple ruins, the stone structures are covered in thick foliage. In this image, a large tree's roots cover an entire temple.

Learn More about Systems Thinking

Use the 5 Whys method to help you find the root causes.

Take our 21st Century Design course with Don Norman if you want to dig deeper and help solve some of the world’s most complex problems. You can of course also use the insights to design “normal” products and services.

If you want to know more about how you can apply system thinking and many other humanity-centered design tools to help solve the world’s biggest problems you can take our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman.

Here’s an article on why we need to see our work through a systems thinking lens.

Here’s another designer’s insight-rich piece about what systems thinking means and how it’s related to design thinking.

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Literature on Systems Thinking

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

Learn more about Systems Thinking

Take a deep dive into Systems Thinking 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

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