Closing the Loop

by Sheryl Cababa


Einstein (ostensibly) said that “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” If design thinking and modern product design has caused various problems in the modern world, than systems thinking is the “next level” of thinking. I genuinely believe that. This book is amazing.

See, I’ve read a number of books on systems thinking before—Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Change, Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, and (best of all) Meadows' Thinking in Systems. But I was always left a bit… perplexed. When designers talk about systems thinking, are they talking about causal loops, systems traps, leverage points, and bathtub diagrams? Or merely “design systems,” which is more about aesthetic and tonal unity? Systems thinking in these books felt like a vital tool to see the modern world clearly, but the bridge between the disciplines and design hadn’t been built.

Until, well, this book! Which is very, very good. Cababa begins by pointing to three big flaws in UX design an design thinking more broadly:

  1. Users are viewed as “just users,” instead of as full-fledged human beings. Users are multifacted people who affect others and are affected themselves by contexts that go beyond just the product.
  2. A user-centered approach doesn’t acknowledge or address potential harm, and it limits the potential impact, of design. A narrow-minded focus on engagement has meant that companies like Facebook have ignored the amplifying effects of negative polarization or social comparison.
  3. A user-centered process does not inherently take into account the systemic forces. Challenges of consequence, context, and scale aren’t always acknowledged, and so we miss other points of intervention.

Drawing on Stroh, she defines systems thinking as “the ability to understand… interconnections in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose." And she goes a long way toward showing how designers can map out and diagram larger systems, to identify points of leverage and intervention that we might miss if we just think “Oh, well, we’ll build an app for that.”

The book is funny. The book is beautiful (I love Rosenfeld as a publisher). And more important, the book points, I think, to new frontiers for the discipline of UX as a whole. We live in a world more interconnected than before, and we see examples of companies at scale impacting the world… well, at scale! We invent ships, not realizing that we’re also inventing shipwrecks. We don’t always think about second-order and third-order consequences.

And frankly, that’s because it’s hard. It’s hard to visualize systems and think systemically. But this book has a lot of really wonderful tools and concepts for practical systems thinking: iceberg diagrams, radiating effects, systems maps, ecological frameworks, comparative stakeholder mapping, causal loop maps, archetypes, and more. It’s a lot. But boy, is it incredible!