When I came to work at RAIN Agency a year ago as a User Experience designer, I heard very early-on about “thinking in systems.” On the front page of RAIN’s website, we say, very loudly: We think in systems.
Which begs an obvious question. What does it mean to think in systems? I had a strong hypothesis: I had read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Innovation. These books highlight a lot of things, but the essence is this: we are all connected, we are all part of multiple, often over-lapping systems, and the inability to see the whole–the relationship between the parts, instead of the parts themselves–lies at the root of so many problems.
Systems thinking is “a shift in mind,” a way of “seeing the world anew.” As Peter Senge writes:
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”.
He goes on to point out that systems thinking is a set of general principles, as well as a set of tools and techniques, that span fields from physics to engineering to computing to biology. But at its core, it is a discipline for seeing wholes. Michael Goodman, expanding on this, writes:
It’s important to remember that the term “systems thinking” can mean different things to different people. The discipline of systems thinking is more than just a collection of tools and methods – it’s also an underlying philosophy. Many beginners are attracted to the tools, such as causal loop diagrams and management flight simulators, in hopes that these tools will help them deal with persistent business problems. But systems thinking is also a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realization that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to. (emphasis added)
Now, what does this have to do with RAIN, where I traffic in strategy, product management, and user experience design? There’s two key points I’ve learned here.
First, no product exists in isolation. Products exist, more and more these days, in a digital ecosystem. For example, a physical Starbucks, their website, their app, and their voice skill (made by RAIN) all work together to help a customer–and remember, that always means a person with many problem, but one specific problem that Starbucks can address (often “I need my Frappuccino!”)–to get them their Frappuccino.
As a book lover, I’m grateful that I can pick up a book at home, continue it on my bike ride via Audible (on my phone), reference it at work on either my phone or computer, and continue it again while doing dishes thanks to my Amazon Echo. In fact, as someone who loves books, this is one of the chief investments I have in Amazon’s digital ecosystem: I can continue the task of reading a book in a multitude of environments, in a way that suits whatever context I’m in. It’s terrific.
To consider how these products inter-relate; to think of how a website hands-off to an app, and how a voice service hands off to a TV, and how these products relate to any physical store or experience: these are vital tools for a UX designer to ask in today’s day and age. What is the whole? Where does this service fit? What is the goal of the user? What job-to-be-done are they trying to do, and what task are they striving to achieve? What platforms can we trust they’ll have, and how can we extend the experience with the multitude of touchpoints (like TVs, apps, and voice-first devices) available to experience designers today?
Second, an ecosystem of products and services never exists in isolation from either its business or its users. This second point touches on my passion: understanding users, and not just users, but stakeholders. What’s best for the users could, in theory, to be given a product for free. But for a product to be successful, it also has to be marketed, priced, and supplied effectives. The business’s needs and constraints are important–no product exists in isolation. The product has to provide real value to the business, as well as to the users. Often that comes in the way of monetary compensation, being paid more than what the product or service costs–and achieving goodwill in the process by providing a quality user-experience. It’s not a one-way street, but a two-way street. Value must go both ways.
(And of course, the traditional message of my discipline (UX) is primarily on customers and users–on real people, with real lives, trying to use our product to achieve some kind of goal or end. That is my real joy, and something I love speaking to.)
So I was right and wrong. I was right, when I came to RAIN, in thinking that systems thinking is everything I had read it was: a set of tools and principles that allow one to see the general whole. But I was wrong, because I hadn’t caught a vision of how it applied to the products and services I’m in the business of designing for. I have to consider the needs of the user, the needs of the business, and the existing portfolio of products as I design. If I don’t, we could fail to provide a stellar experience for everyone involved.