Systems Thinking for Product Design

Using Systems Thinking to Gain Clarity of Thoughts and Better Decision Making

Systems thinking was popularised by Peter Senge in his influential business management book titled “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation” (1990). Senge defined systems thinking as a discipline of seeing the whole. And seeing the whole has never been more important than now, with the increasingly competitive digital economy and shifting customer expectations.

Instead of linear cause-effect, systems thinking emphasises interrelationships. Rather than static snapshots, systems thinking steers our attention towards patterns of change. To start perceiving interrelationships and patterns of change in a situation, we need to understand a simple concept called feedback that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other. An organisational initiative designed to amplify user growth and at the same time, another set of actions counteract that growth.

According to Senge, there are structures that underlie situations in the real world. By understanding the underlying structure of a situation, we can gain greater clarity on the interrelationships of actions and identify levers that can deliver desired outcomes. A common structure is the Limits to Growth system archetype, where both reinforcing and balancing forces co-exist to characterise the pattern of change. The systems diagram below illustrate an example revolving around design impact on business.

Let’s start with the reinforcing loop in the diagram above (left side), where a new design delivers positive impacts on both business goals and users. Design helps improve usability and usefulness and trustworthiness. This leads to positive word of mouth. Subsequently, the feel-good buzz helps to uplift user growth. With the positive outcomes, the company continues to use product design as lever to generate growth. The reinforcing patterns continues.

But eventually, the balancing loop (right side of the diagram above) will come into play. The balancing loop will slow down and counteract the reinforcing effects. As growth continues, there is growing tendency to bake more features into the product. More features leads to greater complications and this leads to longer development time and sub-optimal releases. This then adversely influence the business impact of design, as it takes longer time to go to market and customer loyalty will wane.

With diminishing design impact, the company continues to churn out even more creative designs, in hope of enhancing usability and creating positive reviews. But this will continue to meet resistance from the balancing process and becomes counter-productive. The company should focus on the balancing process instead of the reinforcing one. Find ways to optimise feature sets to reduce cluttered and complicated interfaces. Also, put in place better processes to optimise development time for faster go to market to meet the ever-changing customer demands. Only by minimising the counteracting frictions, the company can continue to deliver desired outcomes from the reinforcing process.

Another common archetype is Shifting the Burden. This structure appears when we mistakenly create a solution for a problem symptom. In the example below, the problem is low feature usage. Most companies are naturally incline to solve this type of problem by running promotions.

During the promotion period, users starts using the feature to get the promotion perks. At this point, it seems that the problem has been solved. However, side effects of the faux solution will appear and amplify over times. The side effect of the above example is a growing expectations that promotions alone can solve low usage problem. The expectation will hamper the effectiveness of the fundamental solution, which is creation of better design, flows and use cases.

With systems thinking, it is easier to identify the high impact levers. Teams can use the levers to achieve better outcomes by steering away from superficial solutions. In many complex situations, systems diagram helps to enrich mindsets and widen perspectives. This leads to effective design solutions for realistic user problems.

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Photo by Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash