How should designers approach the task of designing for complex high-risk contexts, like the bridge of an offshore service vessel?

What do we need to make sense of to make good design judgements?

In what ways can systems thinking be of help when designing for such environments?

This PhD blog addresses these and other questions and is about my search for and research on design for sensemaking.

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    Relating Systems Thinking and Design

    Last week a seminar addressing how systems thinking can be related to design thinking and design practice took place at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO). The speakers comprised a good mix of internationally acknowledged designers and systems thinkers, PhD fellows (including myself) and former Master students from AHO. Here are my reflections on some of the issues discussed during the two days of the seminar.

    Refrain from doing the wrong things right

    The righter you get the wrong thing, the wronger you get.

    Russell Ackoff

    The seminar started with a talk by Dr. Harold Nelson, an architect who for a number of years has worked in the field of organizational systems design. Nelson opened with an enlightening quote by Russell Ackoff: "The righter you get the wrong things, the wronger you get." As I understood Nelson's talk, he tried to give us some insight into how we can be more considerate in our design practice and make sure that we do the right things. Nelson stressed how design needs to be more "centred", more entangled and have greater depth.

    Similar issues were discussed by other presenters. Peter Coughlan from IDEO and Colleen Ponto from Seattle University talked about how systems thinking can help the designer identify counter-intuitive solutions. This sparked a discussion on how sometimes the most obvious solution can make things worse, for example when attempting to design for sustainability. We as designers aren't always good at thinking about the unintended consequences of our designs.

    Dr. Michael Hensel from AHO started his talk with the famous quote by Donald Rumsfeld on unknown unknowns, the "things we do not know we don't know". I like the notion of the unknown unknowns. Systems thinking provides some tools that can be used to identify unknown unknowns and help us in doing the right things.

    There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

    Donald Rumsfeld, former United States Secretary of Defense

    The limits to human-centred design

    Both Harold Nelson and Dr. Peter Jones, an associate professor with Toronto’s OCAD University and coordinator of Design with Dialogue, touched upon the limits to human/user-centred design in their talks. Jones discussed how design traditionally has been based on an understanding of human behaviour, but stressed that for higher levels of complexity user-centred design is not enough. Designers working with such situations need to be systemic in their approach. Nelson suggested that we should do 'human' centred design rather than 'human centred' design. If I understood him correctly, he by this meant that we need to consider the relations and connections between humans instead of only focusing on the individual human. Relations and connections are important concepts in most systems approaches.

    Merging systems thinking and design thinking

    A useful starting point on how systems thinking could be related to design was made by Peter Jones, who emphasized some of the things the two have in common: 1) the habit of framing and reframing the situation we work with and 2) iterative inquiry. Jones pinpointed the lucky situation we as designers are in: We can pick and choose from the different systems approaches and use whatever we find valuable in our design process.

    Peter Coughlan and Colleen Ponto have for a few years worked on how to merge systems thinking and design thinking into one framework. Ponto has a background in systems thinking, while Coughlan brought design thinking into the collaboration. Their starting point is that systems thinking is best at describing what was and what is, while design thinking is best at suggesting what might be. In their proposed framework tools and techniques from both are included, with a special emphasize on causal-loop diagrams from System Dynamics and prototyping from design practice.

    Dr. Alex Ryan, who works with operational and strategic design at Booz Allen Hamilton, discussed how combining systems thinking and design thinking can be beneficial when designing military strategies. I found Ryan's reference to a statement by Helmuth von Molke the elder, a German Field Marshal of the 19th century, particularly interesting. von Molke said: " plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force." Ryan talked about how you can't predict what will happen after you put your plan into action. In my experience we designers have a strong desire to be in control of our designs. It is tough to accept the fact that as soon as we give our designs away, to the manufacturer or developer, to the client and in the end to the end-user, the design is out of our control. We need to acknowledge that it may be necessary to allow the user to adapt the design to the situations they face. plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

    Helmuth von Molke the elder, German Field Marshal

    A systems approach to designing when safety is at stake

    Among this crowd of really clever and experienced people I was lucky to present what I'm currently concerned with: Designing for safety-critical systems (systems where the consequence of an error may be fatal). The main message from my talk was that the complexity of such systems is a challenge both for the users and for the designers of the systems. Not a lot has been written about how industrial and interaction designers should approach the task of designing for safety-critical environments. I haven't come too far in my research yet, but based on my previous experience and what I have done this first year of my PhD, I introduced some initial thoughts in my speech.


    I believe a different mindset is needed when you design for safety-critical environments. Typical for these environments is that they are situated in a large organisational context and encompass highly advanced technology. I agree with Harold Nelson and Peter Jones in that a traditional human-centred approach is not enough when designing for complex contexts. In the case of safety-critical systems, merely looking at the human-machine dialogue with a standard user-centred design-approach is too narrow. This doesn't mean that I don't think we should focus on the users' needs and desires, it just mean that I don't think that is enough. I believe a systems perspective is necessary.

    Similar to Peter Coughlan and Colleen Ponto, I made the point that designers need to focus on unintended consequences of their designs. A study carried out at the University of Lindköping in Sweden1 supports this view. In this study it was found that traditional design methods usually strive to describe and design best case scenarios and lack a perspective of safety.

    The designer's competence

    In my presentation I also raised the following question: Are there some competences independent of projects that is beneficial for the designer of safety-critical environments to have? I know a little more than the normal designer about the advanced technology commonly used in such settings and have found that knowledge to be valuable in my work. I also proposed that it is useful to know some more about human factors than than what a designer of consumer products need, in particular human error. Last I stressed the benefit of having domain knowledge.

    The design process

    My last question was whether we need to carry out a different design process when we design for safety-critical environments. Do we need to include new activities? Do we need to set aside more time for analysis and designing? My gut feeling is that we do. Through this seminar I got the feeling that I am going in the right direction in my research and I got a lot of new ideas to follow up. On occasions like the seminar last week I really feel lucky as a design researcher being able to spend my time on diving into such very interesting topics.

    Blog post updated Thursday, November 1, 2012.

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