In Books

Design for Care

We Tried to Warn You

Team Design

Edge Practices: How Do You Measure Value?

Every design discipline (even industrial design) has had to develop its best rationale for the question “why should we keep/hire/use you guys?” If they keep asking, “what is it you do again?” you may have more work to do more on strategic communication.

Emerging practices will always be considered marginal at first, within an organization. Practices (not processes) are formed from collective agreement, and are often tacitly formed.  When an organization first develops a core process, such as project management, it starts as a practice. Outcomes are uncertain, its value to cost is assessed. When a practice, such as user experience, becomes vital to every project, it becomes formalized as a process.

You can tell practices because they have small in-groups, communities of practice that may form to develop methods, ensure quality, share learning, as in nearly all user experience groups in the past.  (I can speak as having been the “first one” and developed UX capacity in several organizations).

This agreement of practice requires enrollment of participants over a period of time. You don’t “pitch” your own organization to accept your practice, usually, as the resulting win may be brittle. Marginal, edge practices have to win over internal clients by demonstrating value, extraordinary value.

I think its significant that most large organizations have no formalized design processes, they have – at best – practices in different locations. Yes, the major product companies have UX teams, but I’d remind (anyone) that Google had a very marginal design practice until only recently.

Systemic design is marginal as a discipline, as there’s no global practice community, no professional societies, no standards for method, no canon or agreed body of knowledge. This keeps things fun and lively, and as we’re holding the third symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design this coming week in Oslo, it reminds me of the early days of CHI (I was at the second conference, and it was about the number of people we have attending now).

RSD is an annual symposium of academics, students and advanced practitioners that embraces the discipline at the convergence of systemics and design thinking. We have a strong service design contingent, but it is not the same thing and we don’t leverage UX and service design methods as you might expect. Systemic design is a hybrid of design disciplines that draw on systems thinking – and as it matures its becoming its own practice.

Systemic Design in the Organization

In the years when we built custom information systems and software, we developed something of a systems design discipline that produced models for system structure, custom interface design, distribution, custom networking, even custom workstations. There were (and still are) system engineers. But system designers went away as the micro revolution put a PC, then a laptop on every desk. And while we all trained in systems analysis and design (for systems and software), only a rare few worked with system dynamics (operations research), soft systems, or system sketches.  These were used in government, labs and IBM, only a few advanced firms.  Now we mean something different by system design.

However, we have to train organizations to recognize this function as core to their business, and for the most part, its not recognizable to corporations.  But then, neither are ethnographers, and there is a thriving corporate ethnographic practice community.

So as with all design practices and a lot of research – job titles may vary. It can take time for the business case of a new competency to be valued, even if you develop a good rationale. And since we espouse team collaboration, when our leadership is successful our (internal) customers will believe they did the work themselves. What’s good for Lao Tze (who defined that as the essence of leadership 2500 years ago) it’s not going to actually help what we called in AT&T Bell Labs your “body count.”* You need metrics and measures (these ARE different, and you will need both).

*(Our manager was a wry Vietnam vet who reminded us that our internal metrics came from the same mentality that presented body counts in the 1970’s TV news to show how America was “winning” the war).

The Evolution of Edge Practices

With an edge practice you have to discover what your sponsors value and deliver “body counts” – numbers or values – that help them make their business case to their sponsors. Find out what your customers have to deliver on, and help them deliver on that promise. If you cannot find that fit, then you might have to find new customers.

Every design and creative discipline has this problem at first. My career followed that developmental arc of value creation. I started as a human factors MA, moved into software design, systems engineering design, and then web product design, combining research and design in each role. Much of this was delivering what the organization required, boring specifications and CASE systems analysis by the sheaf. Real design work was always vulnerable, as software was (and still is mostly) all about the engineering and shipping. While I always found ways to conduct user research, even if guerilla street testing, user engagement value didn’t count as much as you’d think – not until the Web 2.0 networked era and real-time analytics.

Human factors – with an experimental and evidence-based approach to system design – took a good decade to prove its value in US firms, and we had the ready metrics and measures to prove value. That’s what we did back then, hard-core behaviorist-style observational testing. (And even then, with its formidable research rigor, usability testing was exotic …  based on a failed internal project of mine to build a usability lab at a former employer, my company’s CEO wrote a million dollar check to his (and my) alma mater, University of Dayton, for a world-class usability lab. For a while, it was probably the best in the world, and so was the very definition of exotic – nobody really knew how to use its full capability. This was in 1991, while I was still in human factors grad school.) Within three years, I had built a competent lab for $20K. By the time we started building web products in 1995, we were already doing field usability instead. That’s a pretty rapid depreciation curve.

So this question will keep coming up in systemic design. When value is delivered by creating collaborative engagements across stakeholders, we have to understand how they value and measure collaboration. Are the outcomes better projects and programs, better strategies and planning, faster time to delivery, making the right decisions earlier? There are ways to show these values, but we can’t measure everything. You want to measure what sponsors value most, and demonstrate how your practices delivered that value.

(For a case study on the causes and recovery from total market failure, get We Tried to Warn You, there in the left column)

MISC Magazine Interview

Interview with Dr. Peter Jones

Thanks to Dustin Johnston-Jewell, Strategic Foresighter at Idea Couture and SFI MDes grad student, for the terrific interview and publication in IC’s MISC magazine.

While MISC is Idea Couture’s own curated and published magazine, it has very high design values and a good range of authors, from within the fast-growing Toronto innovation firm and from outside. It extends their thought leadership by putting a printed and online journal on the street where they can curate a huge volume of ideas while scanning and managing trends. I was happy to do the 90 minute interview with Dustin, who edited and wrote much of it for the online MISC (and a shorter version in print if you’re lucky enough to get the exclusive journal). A brief excerpt follows:

With the advent of biotechnology, genomics, and human-centric patient care, the healthcare industry is going through an era of rapid change. Both the rate and potency of this change are going to increase as the combined efforts of technological advancement and demographic shift bring about business opportunity for patient solutions. Included in the contemporary progression of healthcare is the inclusion of experience and service design into clinical and vendor practices. These disciplines offer the healthcare industry fresh insights into patient experience, offering methods for holistic solutions to the complex problems that trouble today’s patients, healthcare practitioners, vendors, and policy makers.

In his book, Design for Care, Peter Jones highlights the design issues facing healthcare and illustrates how stakeholders can navigate the changes and produce a better system for all. MISC sat down with Dr. Jones and discussed the role of service and experience design in healthcare.

/ Tell us a bit about your book.

PJ: The book, Design for Care, is the accumulation of four to five years of research based on a proposal to Rosenfeld Media in 2008. The notion at the time was to present the growing impact of design thinking and service design as professional competencies to be integrated into new healthcare practices and healthcare education and across the spectrum of healthcare application areas. Previously, you were likely to see design and design thinking primarily in health IT, in Health 2.0, in health web and mobile applications and digital media. But that is a very small slice of impact when you look at the actual full spectrum of healthcare.

Everyone uses information or content to some extent to answer healthcare and care questions for themselves or their families, but I think the higher impact is going to be for designers to move more deliberately and more strategically into clinical practices and large healthcare institutions and start to teach what we learn and start to put out new types of designers.

Read the rest at MISC online.

Systemic Design Research Network

Systemic Design Research Network(Posted this month on the Strategic Innovation Lab site). We are rolling out the Systemic Design Research Network, a cooperative educational group founded in 2011 whose aims are:

  • To advance the practice of systemic design as an integrated discipline of systems thinking and systems-oriented design
  • To convene an annual international symposium, Relating Systems Thinking to Design (RSD)
  • To advance the knowledge, theory, and publications in the domains of systems-oriented design and industrial and social systems design methods in systemic practice.

We are an OCADU research group located within the Strategic Innovation Lab. As Prof. Jeremy Bowes and Dr. Peter Jones have developed the primary courses in Systemic Design for OCADU’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program, we have trialed (and erred) enough to recognize and validate highly effective approaches to quickly and powerfully combine social research, expert studies, stakeholder workshops and mapping to inform systemic services and societal innovations. We have several years and courses of Gigamaps demonstrating the deep synthesis and creative research from student teams. We have SFI graduates now employed in the Alberta government’s systemic design policy innovation group.

History and Aims

The SDRN was founded at AHO, Oslo School of Architectural and Design, in partnership with OCAD University, Toronto and is organized by a standing committee of four co-organizers Birger Sevaldson, Peter Jones, Harold Nelson, and Alex Ryan.  SDRN is a cooperative association based on both academic and industry relationships, and invites faculty and students worldwide to participate in events and share research.  We are a member group of IFSR and host a moderated, open online community. RSD participants are invited to join the online forum, and are welcome to participate with us in future activities: workshops, publishing, symposium events.

As organizers of the Relating Systems Thinking to Design (RSD) symposium, discourses and publications have been developed for the following areas of research:

  • Strategic Design and Social Systems
  • Systems Oriented Service Design
  • Advanced Design Methods and Systems Thinking
  • Systems Theory in Design
  • Teaching Systemic Design and Systemic Literacy

Systems theory and design developed clear interdisciplinary connections during the era of the Ulm School of Design and Buckminster Fuller’s design science, resulting in the design methods movement (informed by Rittel, Alexander, JC Jones and Archer). However, in the recent decades this co-evolution has not persisted, as each field has specialized in preferred core disciplinary methods. Practitioners in both systems science and design have attempted to entail the more effective models and techniques from the other field, but usually in piecemeal fashion, and only if a problem was so suited or if supported by clients.  Systems thinking has generally considered design thinking a soft complement, or analogous to creative planning. Design schools and consulting practices have developed well-packaged presentations of “systems change” approaches, but these are poorly supported by systems theory, interdisciplinary courses or rigorous systemic methods.

There are significant societal forces and organizational demands impelling the requirement for “better means of change.” As Fred Collopy (RSD2) wrote in Fast Company several years ago, the (2nd gen) systems movement may have failed us and we’re not yet sure if design thinking will restore its promise.  As Jones (2009) replied, systems thinking never had a chance, the way it was presented in the last decade – so perhaps it might be redesigned as a discipline. Now we call on advanced design practice to lead programs of strategic scale and higher complexity (e.g., social policy, healthcare, education, urbanization) we have adapted systems thinking methods, creatively pushing the boundaries beyond the popular modes of systems dynamics and soft systems.

Research Agenda & Practices

Systemic design is distinguished from service or experience design in terms of scale, social complexity and integration – it is concerned with higher order systems that entail multiple subsystems.  By integrating systems thinking, theory and appropriate methods, systemic design brings human-centred design to complex, multi-stakeholder service systems. It adapts from known design competencies – form and process reasoning, social and generative research methods, and sketching and visualization practices – to describe, map, propose and reconfigure complex services and systems.

Publications, Projects & Presentations

Several recent publications have contributed to locating systemic design as a human-centred systems-oriented design practice (Nelson and Stolterman, 2012, Sevaldson, 2011, Jones, 2014).  Publications by the co-organizers can be considered seminal works in systemic design and systems thinking in design practice:


Relating Systems Thinking & Design 3

RSD3 2014 Symposium

Following the successful Relating Systems Thinking & Design (RSD2 symposium) last year, RSD3 seeks to engage a wider audience, maintaining the lightweight style of a small symposium where every participant can easily meet. Registration is open for RSD3 – taking place again at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, October 15-17.

Since last year the organizing committee has co-created an international team to develop collaborative research and curricula, as the Systemic Design Network.  We are convinced that integrated, more effective systems thinking and methods are required for addressing complex societal concerns – and our observation is that educational programs and design agencies are not providing the skills and knowledge necessary to deal with systemic design issues. We believe a stronger integration with design and design thinking is a promising way forward. Last year’s symposium geared up the expectations and increased the enthusiasm.

This year’s presenters are sharing significant progress, constructive projects and research that demonstrates or leads deeper impact on society in domains of social conflict and democracy, new economies, healthcare and community well-being, education and ecological flourishing. We are looking for a deeper understanding of the potential for enhancing design practice, as well as developing firm theoretical foundations for a progressive movement.

Behind all of this we wish to reinforce a dialogue on systemic design: How can we reinvent and innovate the relationship between design and systems thinking?

We have 5 keynote speakers confirmed as:

  • Ranulph Glanville
  • Hugh Dubberly
  • Ann Pendleton-Jullian
  • John Thackara
  • Daniela Sangiorgi

We extend an enthusiastic welcome to join us in the dialogue at RSD3.




Program committee

Visiting Oslo