If you’ve been following the polarizing conversations within the experience design realm over the past 20+ years, you’ve no doubt noticed our discipline’s tendency to over-label everything , and our mind-numbing ability to switch en masse to the latest eminent-sounding job title that’s presently in fashion.
Not long ago, early adopters, who initially labelled themselves usability engineers, information architects, interaction designers, UI designers, HCI professionals etc., found a home under the umbrella of (user) experience design, or UX. Soon after, the rapid proliferation of UX through the corporate world prompted the overnight jump from those working as web designers to the now established moniker of ‘UX designers’. While doing so mainly in title, many of those web (UX) designers still lacked any of the basic concepts rooted in the initial subdisciplines originally mixed into experience design, which created the first wave of mislabelled ‘UX professionals’ in the marketplace. In the last 5–10 years, a few other shifts happened: a large percentage of UX designers became product designers, signalling specialization towards building digital and physical products, while another sizeable group with backgrounds in cognitive psychology, ethnography, anthropology, data science, etc. chose a path entirely dedicated to pursuing generative and evaluative research, becoming (UX) researchers. Other small subsets of UX professionals shifted their focus to emergent subdisciplines like content strategy and UX writing. Those of us interested in more strategic design endeavours and the idea of designing ‘at scale’ joined forces with design-minded folks focused from other domains like policy and urbanism, and entered the field of Service Design.
This is roughly where we are now. I purposely left out those who shifted their attention exclusively to design leadership or leadership coaching, as I consider them more or less an entirely different speciation track for the now ‘traditional’ career path.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been another undercurrent gaining significant traction in the world of UX, originally as a competency within someone’s primary job title . Many UX professionals are now labelling themselves as system-level thinkers, some going as far as calling themselves ‘system designers’.
For someone like me, who has been fascinated for a number of years by the overlap between systems thinking methods and the more familiar research and design methods ingrained in mainstream approaches related to human centered design and design thinking, this feels a bit like a homecoming. But it also feels disingenuous. The nature of the system-level conversation in UX circles tends to be rooted by two sets of sources. The first is design lore, like Eliel Saarinen famous quote “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan” or Charles and Ray Eames’ famous “Powers of Ten” short film from 1977. The second, includes basic theoretical concepts from a handful of popular system thinking books written by well-known authors like Russell Ackoff, Peter Senge and Donnella Meadows. While these books portray the academic aspect of systems thinking as seen from the perspective of business and economics, they also have major blind spots when it comes to drawing any parallels directly relevant to the practice of experience design.
Familiarity with these concepts, while foundational, barely scratches the surface. To make a design analogy, it’s the equivalent of equating UX competency with reading Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think”, Don Norman’s “Design for Everyday Things”, and being able to recite a famous design quote, like Nolan Bushnell’s “The ultimate inspiration is the deadline”. You might have acquired the vocabulary, but you’re likely ill-equipped to facilitate anything close to quality work in the space. Systems thinking approaches within today’s mature systems dynamics practices are already rooted in established systems analysis methods, systems mapping approaches, and intervention models, in domains like finance, healthcare, ecology, urbanism, sustainability, etc. Grokking those methods and the theory behind them is a good start towards creating hybrid approaches between systems thinking and design thinking. They’re both messy and complex. They require research to understand how the underlying structures operate. They create a spectrum of models ranging from individual to societal ones. They require advanced analysis, synthesis, abductive reasoning and big picture/wicked problem-solving skills. But until practiced, competency in all of these realms is only a linguistic illusion. Think of how long it took before you considered yourself a passable designer. Now think about whether you’ve given system-level methods anywhere close to the same level of attention, practice, and critical discourse.
Which brings me to back to ‘systems designers’. Someone out there chose to go beyond articulating that systems thinking is an integral part of their core service design competencies, and decided it was a good idea to promote it as part of their job title. It worked for product designers, it originally worked for service designers, it must work for ‘system-level designers’ as well, right?