The untapped potential of system thinking in modern design

Creating a solid design foundation that won’t crumble as a product evolves

A very colorful digital illustration (with shades of red, blue, yellow, green, purple, and orange) on a light blue background. At the center is a white person with shoulder-length black hair, wearing green shoes, blue pants, and a pink-and-white striped shirt. Their left hand (with pink nail polish) holding a red circle with a blue cog at the centerholding a pencil at the center and their right hand touching an orange square with a stylized tree in it. The person is surrounded by more than two dozen symbols, emojis, shapes, and icons.

Illustration by Kenzo Hamazaki

In the design world, there's an inconvenient truth that every product has a shelf life. Whatever product you've poured your heart into designing, there's a time when that version will no longer be relevant. This end date is inevitable and based on many uncontrollable factors, such as technological advances, innovation, or evolving aesthetic tastes.

An important construct that steers product development and is often missing in design thinking is planning for the full Product Life Cycle (PLC). Based on a formula developed by economist Raymond Vernon, it proposes that all products have five stages:

  1. Introduction of the product to the market
  2. Growth in product demand and profitability, which generates competitors
  3. Maturity of the product is well-known and demand and sales start to plateau
  4. Saturation in the market requires continued innovation or competitors may start to gain market share
  5. Decline in the potential of the product after it has peaked
An illustration of five potted plants in various stages of growth on navy blue background. From left: 1. A blue pot with only green leaves above the word Introduction; 2. A blue pot with green leaves and pink flower emerging above the word Growth; 3. A blue pot with green leaves behind a young pink flower above the word Maturity; 4. A blue pot with green leaves behind a pink flower with visible pollen above the word Saturation; 5. A blue pot with green leaves behind a drooping pink flower with visible pollen, and a fallen petal, above the word Decline.
Understanding and planning for the full product life cycle can help extend it.

Realistically, with the speed at which some products are built, once they enter maturity, they often lack enough flexibility to be added to easily and end up facing fates that involve full from-scratch rewrites or complete pivots. The products that best evolve and adapt to new needs are those with solid foundations—like a house, a product built on a sturdy foundation will have longevity and be far easier to renovate. In product design, system thinking provides that foundation.

What is system thinking in design?

Experience design is tactical, linear, and intrinsically tied to user success. Alternatively, system thinking is a nonlinear way of working that requires mapping all product dependencies you know to be true. System thinking has nothing to do with immediate user success; it focuses on understanding all the root causes of a problem, to plan for several possible solutions.

As an example, Adobe Lightroom is more than a single program on the desktop, it's an entire cloud-centric ecosystem that offers multiple surfaces on which to view and edit photos. It spans multiple devices (computers, phones, and tablets) and platforms, and changes automatically reflect across all surfaces while remaining non-destructive to the original image. By anticipating the need for scaling, the team designed a system of shared libraries that allows the ecosystem to adapt and evolve with minimal refactoring.

Two graphs on navy blue backgrounds. Top (titled "Faster ramp-up"): Along the X axis is "Timeline" and along the Y axis "Foundational tech." Progress for Product 1 (represented by a purple button and two purple dots), Product 2 (represented by a yellow button and two yellow dots), and Product 3 (represented by a green button and two green dots) are shown both "With platform" (a pink line rising up and to the right) and "Without platform" (a flat teal blue line). Bottom (titled "Faster iteration"): Along the X axis is "Growth, Maturity, Stagnation" and along the Y axis "Use over time." Progress for Product 1 (represented by a purple button and a purple dot), Product 2 (represented by a yellow button and a yellow dot) are shown both "Platform" (a pink line rising up and to the right) and (a solid purple line rising up and to the right and becoming a purple dashed line heading down and to the right).
Top: Developing a base platform enables faster ramp up without needing to start from scratch each time. Bottom: Prioritization of a platform and system is a long game that enables a product to pick up momentum.

To think in a system is to preemptively plan for all scenarios, understand everything you possibly can, and create artifacts that can answer near and future questions. It’s based on the idea that every version of a product builds on equity inherited from an earlier version—that’s been mapped out ahead of time—rather than starting from scratch each time a new feature or functionality needs to be added. It’s big picture thinking and that can be especially daunting since it requires stakeholder alignment, research, and some degree of predicting what’s next.

The four components of integrating system thinking into a workflow

Normally engineers and architects do the non-visual part of system thinking: They make decisions and implement guidelines based on the requirements and capabilities of a product’s underlying technology. Those guidelines are inherited by designers who match the right UX to the UI to create experiences that are consistent, trustworthy, and able to scale with environment and user needs. But the best experiences are only possible when both the current needs and the future needs of users are considered. There are four components to this:

1. A central platform

Establishing a dedicated and centralized platform and team is critical since it serves the purpose of being a starting point for all new technologies that can grow independently of the product roadmap. This guarantees an early investment in the future and the ability to scale in all scenarios.

A platform is a service that prevents the need to build technology from scratch each time. It’s a well-defined and reusable system that enables faster development and time to market, allowing for more iteration cycles and testing opportunities. A robust platform predicts and accommodates current and future needs, as well as any last-minute incoming requirements from products. Because a platform is only as successful as the information it’s built on, this value is only possible with a direct pipeline and a clear set of priorities between products and platform teams.

A simple chart on a navy blue background. Inside a pink box under the heading "Platform" are a yellow rectangle titled "Front-end" with white arrow pointing to a yellow button that reads "How the interface looks"; a teal rectangle titled "Authoring" with a white arrow pointing to a teal button that reads "How the features work"; and a purple rectangle titled "Rendering" with a white arrow pointing to a purple button that reads "How the information is shown."
The composition of a modern-day web platform.

As an example, a modern-day web platform may be composed of up to three parts:

Designers are usually appointed to front end since the dependencies are visual and tied to the interface, but by understanding how features work and are interpreted on multiple devices, designers can offer unique insights and help forecast the potential for a specific technology.

2. A set of frameworks and patterns

Patterns and frameworks are meant to be universal starting points with enough flexibility to be adjusted or extended. This means if a group of designers all reference the same framework, even if their designs are different, their core experience is the same (a UI doesn't have to look the same to behave the same).

Often when a design team oversees creating shared components, the deliverables manifest in the form of high-fidelity mockups with a reusable component library. It's next-to-impossible to try to meet the needs of several different partners with a single UI solution, and it’s not fair to partners to impose a solution on them that may have no context or consideration for their unique needs.

Proposing a solution that addresses multiple problem statements and provides logic in addition to the interface is the most effective method. That way, partners are more likely to align on the same UI solution not because they must, but because it addresses their needs. Creating a flexible framework as a starting point also leads to natural consistency since it reaches the core problem rather than generalizing.

Take for example a reusable system for loading experiences on the web. The reality is that no matter how performant and perfect a web app may be, there is no guarantee that a device’s performance or its connection to the Internet will be perfect. System thinking predicts all scenarios that can affect the usability of a product. For "loading," it helps generalize a variety of unique states, but rather than providing a one-size-fits-all solution, it presents causes and actions and clear guidelines for creating a consistent experience depending on the factors affecting performance.

Two charts each on a navy blue background. Top: A simple chart of stacked rectangles in different colors and with different titles. From top "Initializing" (teal), "Updating" (green), "Reconnecting" (mustard), "Failure" (red), "Pending" (blue), "Syncing" (yellow), "Retrying" (lavender), "Offline" (grey). All rectangles are joined by white lines to a final white rectangle titled "Loading." Bottom: A simple chart titled "Loading times chart." On the left is a column of rectangles in different colors and with different titles alongside a set of long blue rectangles with the words under the headings "App frame, Canvas, Component" in black rectangles. The pairings from top: "Instant 0.3-0.2" (green) and "Load all UI and content as soon as possible" (blue); "Immediate 0-1s" (yellow) and "Ghost loading, Automated loader, Progress circle" (blue); "Optimal 1-5s" (peach) and "Ghost loading, Automated loader, Progress circle" (blue); "Slow <5s-10s" (pink) and "Ghost loading, Automated loader, Spinner diaglog" (blue); "Unable to load/Timeout" (orange) and "Error dialog, Error dialog, Toast" (blue); "Offline" (red) and "Spinner dialog & toast" (blue).
Top: Instead of generalizing the need for loading, by explicitly mapping out all the possible loading states, there is more clarity about the problem and more consistency when finding a solution. Bottom: Mapping all possible context and criteria creates more logic for an experience and reduces fragmentation when it comes to solutions.

3. UI libraries for designers and engineers

Libraries need engineering parity, otherwise they fragment and eventually fail to serve the value of a system. Designing and building a central and single source of truth for the reuse of interface components is paramount to ensure visual consistency.

Components that teams share across an ecosystem must be built and live within a central repository that anyone can access. But when a single design element (for instance, a header) is shared across teams, and each team must incorporate it according to the priorities of their UI, it can lead to a lack of cohesion across products. There are added risks that come with not centralizing the development of core UI:

Error states in interfaces are a good example. The best error state is no error state and a seamless end-to-end experience. But when tackling complex technologies, bugs or problems are bound to arise. There are many visual ways to respond to an error, but the secret to consistency is to always have a UI behave the same within a common instance. The most effective way to create consistency is to create a guide or rubric that explains the best circumstances for each scenario. This ensures that regardless of which designer or engineer implements an error state, there will always be natural cohesion across a group of contributors since they share the same central logic framework.

Two charts each on a navy blue background. Top: A chart with nine columns titled "Error framework guidance." Underneath the chart is a two way arrow with "Non disruptive" on the left and "Disruptive" on the right." The first column from the left under the heading "Interface type," has four squares labeled "Small degradation" (lime green), "Isolated degradation" (yellow), "Unrecoverable disruption" (orange), and "Critical failure/Outage" (red). Alongside it are nine more columns each with squares under the headings "Help text, Toast, Tooltip, Popover, Inline alert, Alert banner, PI alert, Dialog, Full page alert." "Help text, Toast, Tooltip, and Popover" all have green dots in them. "Tooltip, Popover, Inline alert, and Alert banner" all have yellow dots. "Alert banner, PI alert, and Dialog" all have orange dots in them. "Dialog and Full page alert" both have red dots in them. Bottom: A chart titled "Interface guide" with a left-to-right, green-to-red gradient two way arrow reading "Non disruptive" on the left and "Disruptive" on the right." Under the arrow, in different colored rectangles are the words "Help text, Toast, Tooltip" in green; "Popover, Inline alert, and Alert banner" in yellow; "PI alert" in orange; and "Dialog and Full page alert" in red. Underneath each rectangle are the corresponding alerts showing the amount of screen space commanded by each (the smallest is Tooltip and the largest is Dialog).
Top: Instead of giving someone a UI element to figure out how to implement themselves in a silo, a complementary rubric ensures added context for when they should implement that UI. This framework also implies more than a single solution. Bottom: Building UI elements with consideration for how they map relative to one another can help create cohesion and consistency.

4. System processes and checks

All product processes and requirements must account for the system in some form to ensure that it’s followed or updated regularly, or it will be next-to-impossible to ensure its adoption and viability.

System designers and product designers must work synchronously as part of a single centralized team to drive consistency in the design and development process. Although these two groups will always have conflicting priorities and roadmaps, the collaboration can be extremely productive when they align on those elements that affect device dependencies and user requirements.

A simple chart on a navy blue background. Inside a pink box under the heading "Platform" are a yellow rectangle titled "Front-end" with white arrow pointing to a yellow button that reads "How the interface looks"; a teal rectangle titled "Authoring" with a white arrow pointing to a teal button that reads "How the features work"; and a purple rectangle titled "Rendering" with a white arrow pointing to a purple button that reads "How the information is shown."
In an effective contribution system, the platform solves browser or device dependencies so the product can focus on user needs.

A great example of natural collaboration between a system designer and product designer is when designing for a native platform like iOS. Apple has created a platform and basic set of interface elements that are reliable and have system thinking inherently built in, which means that any designer building with iOS guidelines is doing so with an understanding that their work will evolve along with the evolution of the system. That way, if new hardware or technological capability is unlocked, its integration will be far more natural than if it had been built independently of the system.

System thinking has a place in modern design practice that won't disrupt the design and development process. It ensures accountability, an honest approach to building over time, and product adaptability over time. Since it involves intentional and active decisions that are scoped and properly resourced, building a product at scale while also perfecting it for the future isn’t something that comes without extensive upfront work. It’s critical that teams and leadership have a point of view on its priority and are conscious of near- and long-term tradeoffs.

Special thanks to Amun Ra, Miruna Stoicescu, Stefan Chitu, and Eric Crissman for all the work behind the insights in this story, and to Andy LeMay, for his insights about Adobe Lightroom.

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