An Ecological View of Systems Design

Author: Jodi Forlizzi

Our world is changing. In the past decade, many new societal problems concern us, including the global aging of our population and climate change due to increasing amounts of green house gases in the atmosphere. Society is failing to heed environmental warning signs and consider the needs of future generations. These are systems of problems, and not sufficiently treated by user-centered design approaches that focus on the development of a single solution common in interaction design.Change also characterizes production industries worldwide. In 2012, The New York Times reported that the number of products manufactured in the U.S. dropped significantly over the past three decades, while the number of services increased. The development of product-service systems and systems of interlinking services are on the rise.After World War II, systems thinking emerged as a means to address these large societal problems. Yet this movement did not have a great influence on the field of design. Today, the interaction design community continues to lack a systemic approach to employ in research and design efforts. My work on service and systems design seeks to explain and exemplify a product service systems design approach.I offer one particular construct, an ecological view of systems design, for understanding problematic situations. My ecological view of design encompasses several ideas. First, design problems are inextricably linked to the physical and social environment in which they take place. This environment must be taken into consideration during the design of artifacts, services, and systems. Second, designers must consider the broader consequences of what they design, understanding their relationship to other systems and their impact both locally and globally. Third, designers must find a way to facilitate collaborations that bridge scientific and design disciplines, and allow the intuition of the designer to play a role in shifts and developments in the research process. In this paper, I present The Product Service Ecology, which can be applied in design research and practice. I begin by laying out four basic systems categories: natural systems, designed physical systems, designed abstract systems, and human activity systems [3] and a set of systems postulates. I next examine systems as a potential for human action, emphasizing the role of a human in relation to a system and the subsequent effect on systems thinking. The Product Service Ecology is an ecological system that can be used to understand and describe how products and services change people’s relationships with systems of products and services and with each other. The Product Service Ecology is a theoretical construct that is applicable in many design situations. It is informed by social ecology theory, which, as in any systems approach, “sweeps in” the approaches of several disciplines to understand the dynamic relationships between an individual and the social environment.The factors in the Product Service Ecology include products and systems of products; the services that link those products together; people and their attitudes, knowledge, roles, relationships and values; the place, comprised of the built environment, norms and routines of the place in which the product is used; and the social and cultural context of the people who use the product and–for some purposes–the people who make the product. The Product Service Ecology is applicable in various settings, whether virtually or geographically bounded.I show how concept of the Product Service Ecology originated from my own design research, in studies of people and their relationships to products, services, and systems in the home, and the many interconnections that result. I will bring in inspirations from social ecology theory, which describes the dynamic relationship between people and their environment.I conclude with a set of learnings that stemmed from reframing my research in terms of this ecological approach to systems design. I show how this approach puts systems design into action, by allowing for consideration of all of the contextual elements in a design problem, by allowing the designer’s judgment to play a key role in finding a solution, by facilitating the incorporation of theory from other fields when approaching a design problem, and by understanding the implications of what we choose to design.

Presentation & paper

Posted: Sep-2013

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