CategoryUX & Interface Design

Systems Thinking, “A Discipline for Seeing Wholes”

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.

Making Poetry of Familiar Things

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to push the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.
—Horace, Epistles, ii.3

When I wonder how to best describe the creative act, the act of designing–whether it be an interface, a blog post, sketchnotes, art, or even a life–I find this Roman’s words particularly fitting.

Strange Roads, Chick-Fil-A, and Desire Lines

There’s a Chick-fil-A across the street from my office in Lehi that I sometimes go to. (I love their breakfast muffins.) Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

To showcase this problem, I pulled up this satellite picture of the situation. (It’s outdated, so I added a picture where Chick-fil-A is.) The blue arrows show how I turn from the highway into the road where Chick-fil-A (and my work) is.

Now, here’s the kicker. There are two roads you can use to get into this area. The road closest to Chick-fil-A, the road most natural to turn into, has a strange innovation: a triangle structure, which encourages cars only to turn in when driving north-from-south (in this picture, driving upwards toward the highway). So basically, if I’m coming on the blue arrows (from the north), they’re saying: take the next road, the green road. It’s longer, but the entrance is safer.

Here’s the thing. Ain’t nobody got time for that. People end up doing this:

Which is, mind you, unsafe–both to the drivers and to the pedestrians, because pedestrians aren’t expecting to have to look out for cars coming in this way, and because if the car has to stop for any reason, they’re in the line of traffic.

But here’s the thing: it’s also entirely natural–and it’s used more often than the “safe” (green) path. When I’m in the car, I expect to be able to take a left into that road. The triangle thing is so unnatural, even though it was probably built because the middle turn lane wasn’t long enough at that point. So it makes sense, perhaps, from a road design perspective; but it doesn’t make sense from what drivers expect.

This is an example, I’ve learned, of something called a desire line. I first read about these in the book Universal Principles of Design, where is says this:

Desire lines generally refer to to worn paths where people naturally walk–the beaten path that trails off the sidewalk, usually as a shortcut to a destination–but can be applied more broadly to any signs or traces of user activity in an object or environment. The implicit claim of desire lines is that they represent an unbiased indication of how an object or environment is actually used by people…

Wikipedia also adds some fun synonyms: “game trail, social trail, herd path, cow path, goat track, pig trail, use trail or bootleg trail.” I’ve also seen them called elephant tracks or “pedestrian’s revenge” (which wins for being the most memorable, I think). Again: they’re just the unpaved paths that develop based on animal and human traffic. If you google “desire lines,” you get pictures like this:

Which I think relates back to the Chick-fil-A example perfectly.

The obvious design implication for Chick-fil-A (and whoever owns or manages the property) is that this desire line, this evidence of human activity, is the preferred path. This is important–all the more so because this behavior has lots of implications for the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike.

The implications for designers generally is this: consider how users actually use your products. For interface design, this can be discovered through analytics, heat maps, and good old user testing. Where do people using the product stumble? How do they behave? Are there instances where they try to take a shortcut, using the product in an unintended way?

Something to think about. In the meantime, be careful when driving to Chick-fil-A!

Alan Cooper, Jared Spool, and the ROI of UX

I enjoyed reading a recent exchange between Alan Cooper and Jared Spool this weekend about this question: “What is the ROI of UX?” Alan Cooper argues that good design doesn’t have value–at least, not if the company and boss is seriously asking .

From what I gather, Alan Cooper is an intelligent man whose work has impacted the industry for good, so I can’t believe that he is arguing that UX has no value–period. But I do think he’s arguing that the value should be assumed, and that the company has no need to be persuaded. If you have to persuade the company of the value of good design, Alan seems to be saying, then you have a choice: stay, or leave and find some place where your work’s value is seen.

Jared Spool responds–rightly, I think–that yes, there is value, a “return on investment,” of UX–though not all design is valuable, and not all valuable design is equal. And he argues that Alan Cooper is presenting a privileged, and foolish, choice. It’s a privilege if we can just leave and find some place that values us–a privilege that not all designers have. And it’s foolish. By this, I mean it’s a “fool’s choice,” a term I’m borrowing from Crucial Conversations: it’s a false dichotomy, an “either/or” that ought to be replaced with an “and.” Can’t we stay and help others at our company see the value of our work?

Of course we can. Jared Spool regularly argues for the value of UX here. Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen have a website, Norman Nielsen group, that is a great go-to place for new studies and evidences on the value of UX. For a more practical guide, Tom Greever has a whole book on the subject of communicating design decisions, a book I really need to read again. And Product Hive, my local group in Utah, has meetups that regularly discuss the value of UX, from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives.

Jared Spool’s conclusion–his answer to his either/or question–is this: be a design leader. Be someone who can persuade others to see the value of the design work we do.

A design leader finds where poor design is costing the organization money and pain. They start documenting it and put together ideas around what the design team could do differently to reduce those costs.

When the boss comes to ask, the design leader will be ready with answers for them. They can tell their boss which poor designs cost their organization and how they believe they could fix it.

Good ROI happens when the cost of fixing a problem is less than the ongoing costs of letting the problem continue. By having a ready plan, they’ll have the perfect starting point to discuss the ROI of design.

I think there’s something to this. Obviously, finding “where poor design is costing the organization money and pain” is easier said than done. And I work at an agency / consultancy, where the rules are different: we work with a variety of clients, and I can’t change those clients minds in every instance. I can’t always argue on the strategical level, for a client’s whole company, that they need to reprioritize design. But in a way, this is a blessing: I have to argue on the tactical level–project by project, client by client, button by button and design by design–why this design matters. I’m forced, at an agency, to be incredibly concrete with my arguments, to argue for the value specifically, which is surely a powerful foundation to being able to argue for good design on a broader, more strategic level. And that’s what makes a design leader a design leader: they know how to communicate that value, to discover, uncover, and articulate it.

Jared is implying that UX design is, generally speaking, very valuable. It has a return, and in cases where it’s well-practiced, a strong one. Whether it’s the costs of poor design, or the potential earnings of delightful designs, it does. I can’t forget that, and I can’t afford to let others, either.

Spotify’s Native Voice Assistant

Spotify has added a small floating action button to the top right of their screen, that takes you to an in-app voice search.

Two points: Dierks Bentley is amazing. (“Burning Man” is a fantastic song/meditation on the human experience.) Two, the effect of this feature was to make search nearly frictionless: it took less than a few seconds to find the song. Gary Vaynerchuk, in a recent interview with Paul Cutsinger from Alexa, said “voice will rise to be the dominant user interface because it is simply faster.” This strikes me as exaggerating to make the point–voice is faster, at least as an input. Spotify, long native to Alexa, now has its own voice assistant, and I suspect this will provide it a competitive advantage. The experience of searching for a song was delightful, if only because it was quick.

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