Of Constraints and Capabilities: Applying Systems Thinking to Design the Ideal Experience

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In software design and development we often overlook the role of our customers in applying their own capabilities to achieve their goals, often creating solutions that are bloated, complex, and inefficient. We are also prone to look at constraints as obstacles rather than opportunities to bound and clarify the services we offer. By applying systems thinking, designers and devlopers can create idealized designs that deliver the most value to customers and businesses alike.

Here are the presentation slides and speaker notes:

Intended audience

Those who design, plan, architect, and evaluate software and digital services.

Questions answered by this session

What is systems thinking, and why is it important?

How does an idealized design differ from other types of design?

How can a mental model help in designing and architecting software?

Why are constraints good?

How do I know what my audience can and will do for themselves?

Comments (2)

Intrigueing. Also, sparse. I

Intrigueing. Also, sparse. I can tell there's an awesome cross-disciplinary architects talk in this but would like you to lift the curtain just a bit more. Expand on the 'why is it important' one a bit! :-)


Roy, your friendly co-chair for the Design & UX track

A little more detail...

A very fair observation and question.

Given the power and flexibility of modern software platforms, it's both tempting and expedient to think about how existing modules might solve compartmentalized problems, then cobble them together into what is often erroneously called an "integrated solution".

Systems thinking focuses not only on functional requirements but also on relationships, influences, and external contributors. In the field of user experience, emotional drivers and "offline" capabilities may be part of the user persona, but they are rarely accounted for in the delivered software or service.

The most successful ventures usually include a mixture of products, services, and opportunities for customers to apply their own energy or expression. From post-industrial giants like Apple and Mini Cooper to yarn shops and skate parks across the world, the value of Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" state delivers both advocacy and loyalty by engaging customer capabilities.

On the constraints side, we use systems thinking to remove artificial or self-imposed constraints and focus the design opportunity defined by the real constraints in the system. To quote Charles Eames:

"Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”

Here we see the application of Ackoff's Idealized Design to address not just the visible symptoms of the design problem, but the systemic origin of the problem.

Now, this all sounds very nice, and probably very high-minded and theoretical. But there are real, tangible frameworks for doing these things that any system architect or UX professional can apply. I'd love to share them, and I'm hopeful of the opportunity to "raise the curtain" all the way in London.

Thanks for the question,

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