Human-Centered Systems Thinking




We can all agree that speaking a common language when it comes to design principles and perspectives is incredibly important for internal teams to collaborate effectively. This is true within the design function specifically and across various teams to include products, operations, customer experience and support, etc.

When our team was researching the content development of our first Service Design event back in 2017, I met with an SVP of Experience Design at one of the world’s largest insurance companies. At the time, our team was grappling with our definition of service design versus experience design. Was service design a flavor of experience design? Or was experience design a flavor of service design? Or were they both independent design disciplines in their own right? He summed it up in two powerful phases: “It’s esoteric. It’s nuanced shit.” Turns out the answer is 100% esoteric and nuanced, and is 100% dependent on how you choose to define the disciplines within your team.

What is systems thinking?

A concept that the SVP cited that he wished was used more in common language and culture, both in and outside of the business world specifically, was systems thinking. This term is thankfully a little less nuanced.

Systems thinking describes the interconnectedness between different things that eventually result in an experience. You may think “things” seems pretty esoteric in itself, but the reason it is kept broad is to remain inclusive of the many different elements that can interact in order to produce an experience, good or bad, to include people, processes, systems, technologies, departments, etc.

Systems thinking isn’t sexy

Oftentimes, when we dive into designing both customer and employee experiences, it is easy to get wrapped up in the glossy front-end digital touchpoints, fancy AI-driven routing systems, and those incredible engagement moments that “wow”, but at their core are not solving some of the most ingrained and complex deficiencies that represent the root cause of experiential failures.

Systems thinking is the discipline that looks at the much less sexy systems that need to effectively interact in order to deliver positive experiences. And we aren’t speaking exclusively to the API scripts that connect different technologies, but also the underlying human interactions and collaborations between departments that are required for connected service experiences to function according to plan.

In this way, systems thinking becomes as much a soft skill as it is a hard skill, involving both process improvements but also change management and oftentimes a reorganization of the back end, disrupting the notion of “how things have always been done”.

Human-centered and end-to-end approach

You may feel that elements of systems thinking are already integrated in your day-to-day. Of course, as a designer or otherwise, you may prioritize an understanding of how the systems you own interact with the whirlwind of your day-to-day. But, have you considered how these systems may end up impacting your customers? Or moreover, how do your systems interact with the systems of other departments and product lines in your organization that are inevitably involved in the delivery of the end-to-end customer experience?

I would posit that the biggest challenge in 2020 is to take both a human-centered and end-to-end approach to systems thinking. When you are taking a look at the spaghetti-like organizational structure in your enterprise and the even more complex tech stack that powers the business, do these systems interact in a way that supports employees and delivers a positive experience to customers?

In 2020, a human-centered systems thinking approach needs to be the spiritual center for companies and drive giant mega systems to work together in harmony for both employees and customers. This may require a difficult prioritization of design resources in the organization to be applied internally rather than externally and new collaborations between designers, tech leaders, and people leaders in ways that haven’t happened previously.

Once internal systems are organized in a way that will meet employee and customer needs, all of the glossy, front-end touchpoints will become that more of a “wow” for customers.

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