Typically, whenever we’re faced with the task of prototyping, we enter design thinking mode. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; design thinking has dominated the product development conversation for decades.
However, design thinking does have its limitations.
When design thinking isn’t enough, it might be worth embracing systems thinking.
By using the two paradigms in conjunction, you can expand your toolkit during the development process.
What is design and systems thinking?
Let’s start by looking at what sets these two ways of thinking apart. While there is some overlap, these are two distinct mindsets that will greatly influence your final product.
Design Thinking: Emphasis on user problems and solutions
Design thinking is the more widely recognised of these two mindsets. It involves getting into the mind of your users.
For instance, you might contemplate how a particular demographic will interact with your product, why they’re using it, and how to best meet their needs and wants. You might even bring them in to get their feedback and insight.
In short, design and systems thinking is about developing a solution that your users can embrace. It starts with their pain points and ends with a tool that can mitigate or overcome those pains.
Systems Thinking: Focused on systems and problems
Then there is systems thinking. While less popular these days, systems thinking is completely valid and even comes with some unique benefits.
The goal of systems thinking is to look at a problem not as a pain point for a sub-sect of users, but as a complex interaction of pieces that can be solved by a complex mechanism that is the solution.
In other words, a designer might develop a way to quickly provide customers with fresh produce, while a systems thinker will invest in farms that generate fresh produce. It’s a way of zooming out and looking at a problem from a neutral, comprehensive angle rather than an empathetic, user-centric angle.
What do design and systems thinking have in common?
Despite being quite different, there are key similarities between design and systems thinking that are easy to spot.
For one thing, both of these methodologies involve thoughtfulness. You’re carefully considering the problem, possible solutions, and the relationship between these factors.
Additionally, both types of thinking involve seeking an innovative solution through iterative processes. A prototype solution is presented, improved upon and refined, tested rigorously, and ultimately launched as a unique product. So in many ways, the goal of both methods is the same — it’s the journey that sets them apart.
The limitations of design thinking
Another thing that design and systems thinking have in common is that they’re both lacking in certain areas. When it comes to design and systems thinking, what’s missing is a complex vision.
Design and systems thinking is generally best left to simple problems and/or specific user bases. It’s not as reliable for large scale, integrated solutions that are going to be used by a diverse group of people. It simply isn’t equipped to effectively cover that kind of scope.
The limitations of systems thinking
Conversely, systems thinking and ux design tends to be limited in that it is impersonal and generally lacking in style or satisfaction. There is no “ideal” solution that “just feels right”.
Instead, systems thinking is focused on the big picture. That can be more inclusive at the cost of losing aesthetic and emotional value. With that in mind, it’s better suited to large scale projects and business-side services.
How can we find the common ground by combining design thinking and system thinking?
While both design and systems thinking have unique challenges and benefits, they aren’t necessarily polar opposites, never to mix or mingle. You can easily and successfully blend certain aspects of both mindsets into one another, compensating for their weaknesses and maximising their benefits.
For instance, design thinkers can learn from systems thinking and take a step back. They can consider more groups of users, pay extra attention to accessibility, and foresee problems that a systems thinking mindset might typically miss.
On the other hand, systems thinkers can use design and systems thinking to get more in touch with users. While this shouldn’t take over the core of systems thinking in product design (identifying with the problem), it can help create a solution that feels more personal and satisfying to use.