UX’s year of existential crisis

Continual rounds of layoffs, the emergence of advanced technology, and the proliferation of designers everywhere are forcing UX to…

UX professionals can successfully add systems thinking into our work, yet we should be willing to do it justice. This means we’ve got to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

A woman closing her eyes while imagining the solar system floating around her.
Systems are all around us. (Image created with AI)

There is a growing interest in systems thinking as a framework for designers to apply in solving user experience problems. Some are even donning new titles as ‘systems designers.’ It might seem like a new fad or a pivot from the awkward growing pains that UX is experiencing. Systems thinking sounds intriguing, even intuitive, to those working in human-centered design spaces. To answer the question posed in the title of this article — it might be fashionable; however, it should be given more attention than just a passing phrase in the spotlight.

Encouraging momentum toward UX successfully adopting systems thinking can be found, as Sheryl Cababa describes in her 2023 book Closing the Loop; Systems Thinking for Designers. Anyone promoting it should understand its rich history and do it justice to avoid degrading its potential. This means we’ve got to get comfortable with the uncomfortable — here’s why:

Systems thinking is deep

Systems thinking stems from the broader study of systems, known as general systems theory, and it is used across many disciplines. It has much more depth than the newer design frameworks (sorry, service design, love you). Systems thinking as a methodology emerged over the 20th century from the collective work of a diverse group of scientists and philosophers with backgrounds in biology, sociology, psychology, engineering, and more.

The basic idea is that systems are made of interdependent components with relationships between them. As Aristotle famously claimed, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” By studying the relationship between components, you can find patterns of system behavior, such as causal or reinforcing feedback loops.

Aristotle talking while sitting next to Alexander the Great, who is on a throne, listening.
Aristotle tutoring Alexander by J L G Ferris 1895

While there are many great works on the topic of systems thinking, there isn’t an official, shared definition. A group of systems engineers worked through the history and varied use of the term to come up with a proposed definition, “A thought process through which assumptions are examined about a set of interconnected elements that drive toward a common goal with the objective of discerning hidden values and evaluating evidence in order to assess conclusions” (Whitehead et al. 2015).

A bigger picture of the system can help identify the source of problems that once appeared mysterious and isolated. Systems are small in scope (a factory) and massive (global manufacturing). There are systems within systems, too. Once you start seeing them, it’s impossible to stop.

Systems thinking is radical

It has roots in ancient philosophy and has grown into many areas of study, most notably business management and environmental science. Thinking of the world in systems is a departure from traditional scientific thinking, with its reductionism and views of components as individual, apart from the whole.

Systems thinking is radical compared to the approaches most designers take in our day-to-day work. Despite companies saying they intend to understand customers’ needs deeply and holistically, they rarely actually want this. Besides being time-consuming, just seeing the whole system around an isolated user experience is messy and sometimes brings rise to conflict in motives for the business and its stakeholders. Studying the system around a product and the problems that stand in the way of its success can easily turn into a study of the company’s internal system. Anyone who works in corporate America knows this is dangerous territory – here be dragons.

Systems are knotty

For UX designers, seeing systems often comes after asking many questions and failing to find satisfactory answers. When you keep asking “why,” you eventually find the shape of structures much more complex than what was initially thought to be there. Too often, companies focus on building one web page, a mobile app, or a single service. However, when you’re solving a problem for users, it isn’t happening in a vacuum. Products aren’t used by an isolated person outside the influence of the world around them, yet they are usually designed this way.

Systems mapping example from Tools for Systems Thinkers: Systems Mapping (2017) by Leyla Acaroglu

For example, consider the scope and complexity of a system around a medical device: A medical device is in an operating room, in a surgical unit, in a hospital, in a city, in a country, with a healthcare system that has universities that hire professors to teach students who become doctors, who work at hospitals that buy that medical device. Then, it is used on a patient.

A sequence of scenes starting with hands holding a medical device, next to a room in a hospital, followed by a larger view of a hospital unit with doctors walking around, the outside of a hospital with city street in front, and an aerial view of a city.
Consider the scope and complexity of the system factors around a medical device. (Images created with AI)

Let’s add a couple of descriptors to this to illustrate how complicating system factors can be — A costly medical device used for the prevention of injury is in a heavily scheduled operating room, in a surgical unit in a small hospital, in a city with a majority of citizens below the poverty line, in a country with a privatized healthcare system that has expensive universities that hire experienced professors to teach students who become doctors who have a lot of student loan debt, who work at understaffed hospitals that buy the medical device. Then, it is used on the patient, only succeeding in preventing injury 50% of the time, and the patient is billed.

Imagine you are designing an app that tracks the use and availability of the device at the hospital. Complexity grows exponentially when you consider the relationship between any one of these things and the medical device.

Systems are everywhere

Understandably, the edges of systems can be difficult to define. They are usually drawn artificially to preserve the sanity of the person trying to understand a problem within them. The boundaries can be framed using the rules of a system — what is the system doing? Then, you can begin to make sense of the problem you’re solving by asking about the system’s goals— what would we rather it do instead? Understanding the behavior and relationships between the parts of a system gives you clues about where to make changes. While this works well for smaller systems, the complexity is often too much to handle when you want to solve problems within larger systems.

This is where the term “wicked problems” fits in nicely. Coined by design theorists Rittel and Webber in 1973, it describes problems with no solutions because each symptom of the problem is yet another wicked problem.

A black and white ecosystem map of wicked problems connected by arrow lines showing how they are interconnected.
The Ecosystem of Wicked Problems by Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler (2019)

Poverty, war, famine, disease, housing shortages, addiction, etc, are all wicked problems that arise from and contribute to other wicked problems. They can’t be solved outright. I’m sure most designers find the view at this elevation, overlooking all of humanity’s critical issues, to be staggering, and it may lead to feeling quite hopeless.

However, this is where systems thinking can really shine.

Systems have leverage points

Donella Meadows, the late environmental scientist and badass author on systems thinking, defines it as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” She gained notoriety as a lead author of Limits to Growth (1972), a book that laid out how global resources are running out and brought to focus the ridiculousness of believing that growth can go on forever. More than 50 years later, most of us are still grinding away at growing companies while occasionally casting a glance toward sustainability.

Her book Thinking in Systems (2009) brilliantly explains how systems operate and, most importantly, how they can be influenced. She describes the “leverage points” that affect systems from least to most effective. The least effective leverage points aim to influence the numbers going in and out—more or less of something already being done, or, as Meadows says, “Diddling with the details, arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

A list of 12 the leverage points that Donella Meadows (2009) describes from least to most effective displayed on a white background with a dark border.
Donella Meadow’s (1999) Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Moderately effective leverage points include changing the rules and how information flows in systems, which is the range at which power dynamics become abundantly clear. Meadows writes, “If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them.” She states, “Power over rules is real power.”

The ultimate leverage points have to do with paradigms. Meadows explains, “Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.” Paradigms are not just surface-level ways of thinking about the world — they’re deeply embedded in our minds, and challenging them threatens to shatter our beliefs about what we know to be good and true.

Paradigm shifts are revolutionary

The term paradigm shift comes from the work of Thomas Kuhn, who describes them in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) as schools of thought breaking from previously understood scientific ideas based upon the finding of new information. The new information radically changes what scientists believe, dramatically raising doubt about or disproving previous ideas. The examples he uses are primarily framed within positivist scientific research, such as the discovery of oxygen or gravity. The term paradigm shift has been popularized to mean something more abstract in popular culture — changing a mindset or way of thinking about oneself and the world. To remove rose-colored glasses, perhaps.

Portrait of Thomas Kuhn; A man with glasses standing in front of an abstract spiral background with the words ‘What is a Paradigm?’ on it
Thomas Kuhn coined the phrases paradigm and paradigm shift. (Image from The Living Philosophy)

Meadow’s use of the term seems to blend Kuhn’s original meaning without the rigid dualism of Western science. Paradigms are based on what we believe to be true and can be rooted in scientific data, yet they are influenced by culture, and so are the relationships between everything as part of a connected system. Paradigms are cultural and awkwardly human, not simply the breeding grounds for new scientific theory. Even without applying a sociological lens to it, Kuhn described paradigm shifts as extremely controversial, and the proponents of them were viewed as heretics — some, like Galileo, stood trial, and others were exiled from their professional communities until many years or decades later when their ideas finally took hold.

Professional communities, companies, and even more broadly, cultures resist this kind of change at all costs because it is disruptive and dangerous to the status quo. However, paradigm shifts are needed more than ever to shift us away from worsening the growing list of wicked problems we face. Meadows doesn’t describe it light-heartedly, saying paradigms are the hardest things to change about a system — “But there is nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.” For one person to shift is easy but it is a different story for the masses.

Paradigms are everywhere, too

According to Meadows, the most effective leverage point is the ability to transcend paradigms. The power of this thought ultimately leads people looking for answers to go deeper into systems thinking — it doesn’t dogmatically prescribe processes, and there are no specific frameworks to follow. Yet, it gives us a platform for making sense of the problems we aim to solve that is far from being in the weeds and beyond seeing any forest for the trees — because maybe there are no forests here at all.

Woman looking at stars in the sky with sunglasses
See paradigms for what they are and realize that paradigms are everywhere (Image created with AI)

UX professionals can find liberation in Meadow's advice to “keep oneself unattached from the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is ‘true,’ that everyone, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.”

Transcending paradigms is very, very uncomfortable

Are we, as companies and individuals, willing to acknowledge the paradigms from which we profit, understanding there may be conflict in knowing, and still return to work the next day? It can be argued that we need to find ways to approach the edges of our paradigms and shift our perspectives without losing sight of the importance of our daily lives and risk throwing it all to the wind. Or worse, we risk rejecting what we learn altogether, burying our heads in the sand, and continuing to diddle with details as we pursue the fallacy of endless growth. If what systems thinking teaches us is true, following through to the point of releasing our blindfolds should make us the kind of designers that our world desperately needs.

Is this what UX professionals sign up for when we call ourselves “Systems Designers” or what we offer by listing systems thinking as a skill on our LinkedIn profiles? Is it a buzzword or the sign of a profession on the edge of radically transcending paradigms? That’ll depend on how willing we are to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. UX should embrace the discomfort and not let the opportunity to harness the revolutionary and transcendent power of systems thinking pass us by.

Author’s Note

It is difficult to write anything about systems thinking and have it not turn into a love letter about Donella Meadows. She was truly ahead of her time, and it is hard not to wonder what thought leadership she would have offered us today had she not tragically passed away in 2001. Her book Thinking in Systems was post-humously released in 2008 and is regarded as one of the most popular and approachable resources for anyone interested in Systems Thinking.

If you want to hear more from her, watch her 1994 ‘Down to Earth’ speech at a sustainability conference in Costa Rica, during which she calls on her audience to envision their ideal future. As a scientist, she stood apart from the crowd by sharing her belief in a better future through redesigning systems with care and love. She risked being judged as a woman in a field where these views would deem her soft and unscientific – yet she challenged the paradigm and knew it was just that.


From her ‘Down to Earth’ speech:

“We can share our cynicism to total strangers, we can complain, we can talk about everything we think will never work. But we can’t share our dreams, our hopes, our visions, our deepest longings. It’s not socially permitted. Especially not in scientific forums and certainly not in economic forums. Why? How did we get that culture? Why can we not talk openly and proudly about what we would like, not what we expect to get, but the world we would like to live in – without being labeled naive, idealist, unrealeastic?”

Let’s openly and proudly discuss the world we’d like to live in and how we want to implement it through design.


Cababa, S. (2023). Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers. Rosenfeld Media.

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Meadows, D. H., Club of Rome, & Potomac Associates. (1974). The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books.

Meadows, D. (1994, October 24). Envisioning a Sustainable World: “Down to Earth.” International Society for Ecological Economic, Costa Rica. https://donellameadows.org/archives/envisioning-a-sustainable-world-video/

Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute. https://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems : a primer. London ; Earthscan.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.

Peter Whitehead, N., Scherer, W. T., & Smith, M. C. (2015). Systems Thinking About Systems Thinking A Proposal for a Common Language. IEEE Systems Journal, 9(4), 1117–1128.

Is ‘Systems Thinking’ the new buzzword in UX? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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