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On the role of systems thinking in design and its application to public self-services

Format: Papers, RSD2, Topic: Policy & Governance, Topic: Sociotechnical Systems

John Darzentas and Jenny Darzentas

This presentation uses the paradigm of e-inclusion, and in particular the application of publicly available self-services in order to demonstrate and discuss the power of a systems thinking perspective in Design, and more specifically in the design of services. Here we attempt to justify why employing systems thinking can help designers to identify and acknowledge holistically the dimensions of problem space for which designers are required to design. The richness of the approach will be discussed, through both some representative systems thinking methodologies (such as SSM), as well as some theoretical issues emerging from systems, such as the use of the emerging properties, and the law of requisite variety, notions of second order cybernetics etc. in the conceptualisation and praxis of design. Briefly, systems thinking came about in response to the failure of mechanistic thinking and vitalism to explain biological phenomena. In systems thinking, a ‘system’ is a complex and highly interconnected network of parts that exhibit synergistic properties, where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. The living organisms are, as far as their organisation is concerned, closed systems, while at the same time, as far as their energy is concerned, they are open, with incoming and outgoing energy and matter. That is, they are not ‘idle’ or ‘immobilized’ in their immediate surroundings, and are studied as a total entity. In this way, they present emergent properties, which cannot be deduced from their component parts. Apart from its application to the study of biological systems, systems thinking plays an important role in the world of management and organization, while of course, systems theory in general, has been used in engineering and engineering design for many decades.

However, the real power of systems thinking is in dealing with the high complexity of ill structured problems. Those are traditionally the human-centric ones. Considering the above understanding, and attempting to justify the use of systems thinking in design, we speculate here on some cases of designing for accessibility problems.In particular, we are interested in the type of public services that are most commonly available via self- service technologies. These services range from the simple, such as the purchase of a train ticket, to increasingly more complex interactions, such as filling in forms or obtaining customized information. These services can be accessed and delivered via self-service terminals (SSTs) available in public spaces. However, they are now increasingly available online via an individual’s personal devices (desktop, laptop, smart mobile phone or tablet). An example is the self-service check-in machine at airports, or the equivalent ‘web check in’ that people can use by connecting to the application with an internet enabled appliance.We consider these to be representative human centric design problems for autonomy. Our particular area of concern is the provision of these services to vulnerable people. With the term “vulnerable” we include:

  • older people
  • people with sensory and/or mobility and/or dexterity impairments,
  • people with cognitive impairments
  • people with literacy problems, such as economic refugees, who may understand, but not read the language of the host country,
  • people in handicapping situations, such as a parent with a small child, an adult child caring for elderly parent

The increasing demographic of vulnerable people is an acknowledged problem. Statistics, particularly for the elderly, show that this is a population on the rise; while survival rates for previous fatal conditions have risen, meaning that more people live disabilities. Added to these is the global movement of populations because of war, famine, economic downturn and climate change that is increasingly fueling the economic refugee situation. At the same time, many countries are now requiring their citizens to use online and unmanned services, and are withdrawing traditional face to face services. This increase in unmanned self-service in the public service sector implies dependence on SSTs or personal access to internet-enabled gadgets. Yet, for the most part, these are out of reach for vulnerable populations either because of technological or economic barriers. Thus reliance on this type of service means exclusion from services for large sections of the population. Current approaches to dealing with the accessibility of public services, and promoting the inclusion of the vulnerable are mostly based on an extended human centred and human computer interaction. This leads to suggestions that are not implemented, because reality has been treated in a piecemeal or reductionist manner. As an example, guidelines pertaining to the optimal height of screens for ATMs have led to a plethora of accessibility related standards that are contradictory amongst them, and none of them really tackle key issues. It is our belief that a systems thinking approach is far more appropriate. Considering the particular problem area and treating it as a system, means that its human centric character will be given priority and rich pictures will result from the attempts to understand it. Proven systems thinking approaches and methodologies can then be applied to continue the process of understanding the ‘real’ design problem space and in this way contribute with solutions.

Furthermore, systems thinking will also help the designer to sustain the richness required for providing robustness and acceptability, i.e. producing something which relates to the actual problem, and aids its proper use. For instance, if designers are systems thinkers they will be actively looking for emerging properties, they will try to incorporate these in the design solutions. Again, designers who are aware of systems thinking will understand the need to uncover and ‘import’ the complexity of the design problem. They will, as well, acknowledge the need for requisite variety to provide the necessary power to confront and deal with as many situations and conditions of use as possible. This can only be beneficial to the final designs. Awareness of the notion of 2nd order cybernetics should also help designers to ground their role in the process of design. They will realise they are part of the problem and part of the solution, and not observers.

This presentation adopts the thesis that every artifact which results from design praxis, coexists with the resulting service design. This is how the example used here, i.e. self-service, is considered being systemically designed as a service design, designed together with the ‘touchpoints’ of the system such as the SSTs or other delivery mechanisms.Particularly in the case of accessibility of the self-services, there is an irrevocableness that cannot be denied. Technology for public use, if designed appropriately, has the power to enable many vulnerable people who otherwise cannot participate in and enjoy these services. It also has the power to further disable, disenfranchise and reduce their autonomy if not designed in a holistic manner.




Citation Data

Author(s): John Darzentas and Jenny Darzentas
Title: On the role of systems thinking in design and its application to public self-services
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 15 September 2013
Last update:
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404