Designing in spite of complexity

Updated: Sep 17

Julie Guinn is a user experience research principal at Dell Boomi, where she focuses on understanding complex enterprise data ecosystems. She has 20 years of experience driving human-centered design and research in leading technology and healthcare organizations, including Microsoft, Intuit, University of Pennsylvania Medical System and Elsevier. She holds a master’s degree in Human-Centered Design from the Illinois Institute of Design and a bachelor’s degree in Human Factors from Tufts University.


Her topic at this year’s edition of the Service Design Global Conference, which was held in Toronto in October, was focused on how to design in spite of complexity. She believes that we, as service designers, love complexity and tackling the problems. Usually, she will come across some clients who say they have problems what they want to improve, which is seemingly reasonable but usually present her with a very clean model. However, she wants to see what the problems are for herself. And when she does to the field, she finds a big mess instead of a clean model. She then goes back to the clients and explains that there were “a few” things they didn’t know about. And clients – in spite of service designers – don’t love tackling issues so much.

She explained that there are simple systems and then there are complex systems. A system has a purpose that comes from the natural behavior of the system itself. The system is what the system does. Everything is connected and this can be overwhelming. All pieces are interconnected, which can lead to the nesting effect – crating systems within systems. But sometimes those systems may not be complementing one another. For instance, the notion of care and the notion of billing in healthcare are less than compatible.


When you are trying to influence a system, design a system, it has to be holistic, inclusive, you want to take a facilitative approach. The solution has to come from the system itself. You need to explore interventions and see what happens. In self-organized systems, there are some things that influence our work – distributed knowledge and distributed control. An extension of the distributed knowledge is the so-called systems blindness, because of which companies briefs seem reasonable, but naive.

You can go to the client and tell them that you need a more systemic approach, but it may not be the right time. They might be in need of a culture change project. You can advocate for the systemic design process, but there is another way. Try to address that system’s blindness and try to find a safe space, an area where they can actually feel confident, they will have power or authority, or at least some influence over. You can think of it as a third diamond of the design process in which you put a wider lens on that problem space. This will help you see what that system looks like, not just research the user experience. You don’t even have to tell your client that you are doing it. You can work as you normally do.


Leave the defining of a safe space for the client. You can pull in as many perspectives as possible. Then you need to pull one of the elements out and determine what happened, what are the patterns, what is happening over time. If you have a point you are going to make, make a map just for that. Be ready for anything. You can have a client that might want to take the world over or someone who is making small changes and putting most of the tasks in the back lock in order to validate them with different stakeholders later. Sometimes you, as a service designer, need to give yourself permission to not design the “whole thing” but keep that project small and design in spite of the complexity that you are facing.

Read the fantastic lecture by Anne Van Lieren on “Customer Behaviour by Design - Influencing Behaviour Beyond Nudging” at this year’s Service Design Global Network.


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