Can HCD Help with Complex Sociotechnical Systems?

Don Norman

How can designers deal with the complexity of implementation with so many social, economic, and political issues? We suggest that the secret is to divide and conquer, to avoid trying to construct or redesign a large, complex system in one step. Instead, the solution should be reached through modularity, and the introduction of numerous small, incremental steps.

The final paper is published in She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, Volume 1, Issue 2, Winter 2015, Pages 83-106. The abstract from the publication is quoted below.


This paper is a follow up to DesignX, a position paper written in 2014, which introduced the design challenges of complex sociotechnical systems such as healthcare, transportation, governmental policy, and environmental protection. We conclude that the major challenges presented by DesignX problems stem not from trying to understand or address the issues, but rather arise during implementation, when political, economic, cultural, organizational, and structural problems overwhelm all else. We suggest that designers cannot stop at the design stage: they must play an active role in implementation, and develop solutions through small, incremental steps—minimizing budgets and the resources required for each step— to reduce political, social, and cultural disruptions. This approach requires tolerance for existing constraints and trade-offs, and a modularity that allows for measures that do not compromise the whole. These designs satisfice rather than optimize and are related to the technique of making progress by “muddling through,” a form of incrementalism championed by Lindblom.

Open Access >

Image: UXLx (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Posted Sep-2015

RSD proceedings are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Creative Commons Licence

Recent Keynotes


The Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium,, is November 3-6, 2021. 

Join the SDA mailing list and stay up-to-date on this and other systemic design news.


Share This