Making friends with complexity: systems thinking + design

Kate Goodwin
5 min readMar 17, 2019

“Tackling complexity” has taken on a different meaning for me since my early days as a design researcher creating and testing banking apps. I now work as a strategic designer at Paper Giant applying systems thinking and human centred design-led approaches to complex socio-economic challenges. To get to this point I’ve had to change my mindset and really “make friends with complexity”, learning to ‘dwell in the discomfort’ as I try to think and act more systemically as a designer involved in systems change projects.

Through a systems thinking lens, the design terrain is infinitely broader, deeper and more challenging. The fear that you might have missed something is ever-present. Here‘s some insights into what I’m going through as a systems change student and design practitioner navigating these complex realms.

Image by Sarah Firth

Eight years ago as I confronted a 3x5m wall of 1,400 sticky note data points extracted from customer interviews, primed to start affinity diagramming in preparation for persona development, I realised two things:

  • I’d need a ladder, patience and bottomless coffee

and

  • I’d need to get past that there’s-a-tonne-of-data-here-where-do-I-start feeling that used to send me into a flat spin of procrastination and avoidance until project deadlines were upon me.

If you’re an early career design researcher, the latter might sound familiar to you. How the hell do you analyse all that interview or survey data you’ve just captured? It can feel overwhelming. I still get this feeling, but now throw myself at the challenge rather than run for more coffee.

I call it making friends with complexity, and it’s the mindset I try and adopt to grapple with the “buzzing, blooming confusion… the complexity of reality we study” (Strauss, 1987) in my design work at Paper Giant, which is increasingly of a systemic thinking-bent.

I’m also currently a student of the School of System Change, stretching my brain and learning practical tools for systems diagnosis and futures thinking.

Thinking back to what I used to consider complex, that work now comparatively seems a walk in the park.

Here’s the Then vs Now of how my practice and mindset has changed:

Then, 5+ years ago, designing and testing digital products:

  1. Conduct contextual interviews to determine what user needs, goals and motivations are to address a financial need. Procrastinate over analysing notes. Coffee.
  2. Generate wireframes and flows showing how the product will function, be implemented, and fit into the user’s life.
  3. Run usability testing. Extract 150 sticky notes from 12 usability testing sessions. More analysis procrastination.
  4. Affinity diagram notes into thematic categories, review with peers, write usability testing report.
  5. Update app and flows in response to test findings.
  6. Make final recommendations to client. Handover wireframes, prototypes, or help with build.
  7. Done. On to the next project.

In hindsight this feels very ‘surface’. Nothing was explored here about broader systems impact. There was complexity in sensemaking data points from interviews and testing to play back into designs, but it was more about “looking in” and being product-centric rather than “looking out” to the broader implications of the thing I was making.

Dwelling at the surface. Image by Kate Goodwin

Now, embedding systems thinking within a <6 month human centred design project to produce an online resource for the justice sector:

  • Draw upon multiple sources to create a causal systems map visualising the complex dynamics of working with people with disability in the criminal justice system of Victoria, Australia
  • Map the elements, connections and causal relationships in the current system. Realise how important it is to get levels, labels and layout right. Go through several digital and paper based iterations.
  • Mind-boggle that we’re visualising such complexity in a 2D map. Briefly fantasise about creating a 3D systems map like Cluedo, with hidden passages from one connection to another to keep the ever-increasing map lines under control. Stop daydreaming. Get another coffee and get back to work.
  • Think more about boundary choices and what needs to be in and out of the map to help make sense of the complexity of the current system state.

“ …the boundary choice depends on the question you’re asking [of the system].” — Laura Winn, Forum for the Future.

  • Identify three pivotal, potential areas of intervention on the systems map, setting down initial ideas about where the online resource might sit.
  • Introduce senior stakeholders to the systems map and the utility and value of taking a systems practice approach to the project, all without overusing the word “system”, remembering…

System as a word is technocratic. Say this word and you’ll lose 50% of people in the room.” — Bill Sharpe, author of Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope.

  • Design engaging ways of “lifting” narratives out of the system map using scenarios based on real stories of lived experience.
Maps and scenarios used to tell the story of the system. Source: Paper Giant
  • Facilitate workshops with senior justice stakeholders using the scenarios and system map to imagine future possibilities focused on systemic change. Plot these on a spectrum of short-to-long term change and realise that some (most!) are way out of the <6 month project-ballpark.
  • Motivate ongoing team engagement with the systems thinking mindset and tools such as the map to collectively identify longer-term potential areas of systemic intervention. Remember that systems mapping commonly takes many years, and is never ‘finished’.
  • Observe how your work has sown the seeds of change through developmental and ongoing evaluation of the impact it’s having as per the goals set down by the project.
  • Pause and reflect on how much things have changed in your work now you’re thinking and acting systemically 🙂

Designers — what’s your experience been here? How have you reconciled delving into systems-level complexity when there’s also project deadlines and a “thing” to be delivered? Get in touch with me on Twitter @matchboxstudio.

Reference:

Strauss, A. L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511557842

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Kate Goodwin

Systems, strategy, design. Creative experiments in life, work and play. http://matchbox.studio