Industry Guide

Systems Thinking for Designers 101

The best products touch every aspect of users’ lives. This requires following an approach known as systems thinking.

Julie Ko
Julie Ko, Customer Success AssociateAugust 23, 2021
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Great design doesn’t operate in isolation.

Everything in life is connected to one system or another. Cities are part of countries, countries form continents, and continents make up the earth. Individuals are part of families, families of civilizations, and civilizations make up the entire human race.

It’s easy to focus on what’s in front of us in life, and this is especially true when designing a new product. Creating innovative solutions requires taking a granular, detailed view. You must consider every detail of what your product can do—and how it can help users.

But to create truly life-changing solutions, you must remember one thing at all times: everything is part of a larger system. This approach is known as systems thinking.

Let’s explore what systems thinking is, why designers must pay such close attention to it, the differences between design thinking and systems thinking, and how designers can learn systems thinking with ProtoPie.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is the ability to view systems from a broad perspective—seeing overall structures, patterns, and cycles.

Or as Peter Senge, systems scientist, lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, puts it: “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.”

Systems thinking is a lens through which to consider life—and to better solve problems. It encourages us to broaden our thinking, taking into account larger problems, causes, and impacts. In other words, it promotes viewing everything as part of a wider system.

Why do designers need it?

The best designers make a habit out of zooming out from time to time, adopting a wide-angle lens when analyzing consumer behavior and habits. They consider how their product will impact various touchpoints throughout users’ lives—and seek to design products that have as wide, and positive, an impact as possible.

In other words, they adopt a systems thinking approach.

There are two main steps that designers should follow when doing this:

  1. They should understand how their products fit into a collective system (aka, their users’ lives);
  2. If they do, they can design products that enable users to effectively flow throughout this entire ecosystem.

They must consider:

  • The inter-relationships between design elements.

They must adopt:

  • A user-centered perspective, understanding how, when, where, and why the user interacts with their design.

This enables them to:

  • Address the user group as part of an all-encompassing ecosystem.

Makes sense, right? We think so!

Design thinking & Systems thinking

Designers usually follow a user-centered approach. They identify users’ real-world behaviors (and problems) to create products that will add value to their lives. Paying such close attention to users has a ton of benefits—for example, it ensures that every single element of a product is well thought-out and well-executed.

In design thinking, the approach is generally as follows:

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Designers empathize with users, stepping into their shoes to understand the challenges they face. They define these problems before imagining (ideating) potential solutions. These solutions are built into prototypes, which are then put to the test.

Systems thinking, on the other hand, is still user-centered—but it takes a more holistic approach when considering user behavior. It requires designers to zoom in and out of various aspects of users’ lives, recognizing dependencies between different parts of the overall system.

We’re not saying that designers must ditch design thinking. Instead, they should swap between the two approaches to gain the best results. This will help them create products that are as impactful, and valuable, as possible.

Imagine you’re designing a chair for people with degenerative diseases. When adopting a design-centered approach, you might focus on how comfortable it is. Perhaps you’ll create custom tactile controls so that the user can easily adjust how much it reclines, and so on. But then you zoom out and consider some other problems that sufferers of degenerative diseases face on a daily basis.

You realize they may struggle to call for help—so you add an easily accessible ‘Help’ or ‘Panic’ button. Better still, you include voice activation technology and integrate the chair with their phone’s operating system. This allows them to answer, and make, calls without even needing to lift a finger.

But what happens if you zoom out even further?

You might realize that you can further help users by connecting the chair to their home’s thermostat, or to the front door—if somebody rings the bell then the user can communicate with them from the comfort of their chair.

Perhaps you go one step further still, integrating their chair with their local hospital or health care authority’s IT systems. You ensure that users can easily communicate with healthcare officials, book home visits, order medication, and so on—all via the chair. Maybe you could even have the chair test ongoing health metrics, such as heart rate variability, and link this up to medical professionals’ records.

This one example just goes to show the value of systems thinking. By recognizing that no product works in isolation—and that everything is part of a larger system—you can create powerful products that touch every aspect of users’ lives.

Learn systems thinking with ProtoPie

As you might’ve guessed, we’re massive fans of systems thinking here at ProtoPie. We’re also massive fans of education. We believe that anybody can become a great designer, provided they learn the key elements—such as systems thinking.

That’s why we created our Class Support Program (CSP). This allows educators (schools, colleges, and universities) to use ProtoPie for free. But in true systems thinking fashion, we didn’t just want to know that schools were using ProtoPie—we also wanted to understand how and why, and to connect it to their larger mission.

So we decided to speak to professors that regularly use ProtoPie. When we listened to them, they told us that they ultimately wanted their students to gain a detailed understanding (and appreciation) of systems thinking and logical thinking.

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ProtoPie is a tool in teaching them the interplay between design and systems thinking. It allowed students to begin connecting individual motions and interactions to realistic end-user workflows. Then, they could start to connect these workflows to larger problems, user behaviors, and systems.

When designing anything, students must first ask: “Who are we designing for?” This then opens up a series of follow-up questions: “How do these people behave?”, “What problems are they facing?”, and “How can we help?”.

Students would use ProtoPie to build up their own projects throughout the course. But in the process of creating their project, they’d be encouraged to think about the larger problems that they were trying to solve—and would have to adopt a systems thinking approach.

Apply for the Class Support Program

Would you like to teach your students the value of systems thinking? Would you like to give them a tool that allows them to seamlessly move between design thinking to systems thinking, from individual interactions to how their prototypes will impact bigger issues?

If so, sign up for the Class Support Program. You’ll receive a 1-year-long license for free which can then be extended for as long as you’re using the tool for educational purposes.