This is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Jorge Arango’s new book Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places. 2018, Two Waves Books, an imprint of Rosenfeld Media.
Chapter 8: Systems
A well-thought-out structure is a necessary component for a viable environment—but it’s not sufficient. For you to be able to experience it, a building must be built; it must transcend the abstraction of its conceptual stage to become a thing in the world. Of course, the same goes for a website or an app. Making something as complex as a building or a software application requires that different systems work in concert toward a coherent experience.
Let’s return to the Kimbell Art Museum. When you step into one of the Kimbell’s galleries, you enter a space that takes care of various things you need. At the most basic level, the building provides a roof over your head. If it’s sunny outside, you won’t get baked, and if it’s raining, you won’t get wet. While the combination of materials and forms that make this roof possible is impressive, a building such as this goes much further than merely protecting you from the elements. For example, the air in the museum must be within a particular range of temperature and humidity for your comfort and the preservation of the art. Light washes down some surfaces and pools in others to provide consistent illumination and highlight particular objects and spaces. You shouldn’t be distracted by unnecessary noise. Art displays are arranged in particular ways to allow you to move around them and observe them in the best light.
Creating an environment such as this requires a thoughtful arrangement of various systems. They include the physical components holding up the roof, electrical components providing artificial illumination, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) components keeping the air comfortable, plumbing components allowing for water to come into and out of the building, telecommunications components, and more. The skillful combination of these systems adds up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Most environments you inhabit are complex systems composed of various subsystems, which you don’t usually notice—when done right. If the Kimbell were too cold, or too noisy, or too dark, or too bright, it wouldn’t work as a museum. 
Information environments, too, are complex systems composed of various subsystems. In the simplest of cases, they have data structures that store information, algorithms that manipulate it, and a user interface that makes this data accessible to everyone. The success of the whole— how well it allows you to accomplish your goals—depends on a skillful arrangement and coordination of various subsystems and components. To do a good job, the architect must consider them as an ensemble. She may consult with specialists to refine each of the subsystems, but the coherence of the whole relies on her understanding of how these subsystems fit together and contribute toward accomplishing the goals of the whole.
Consider a ride-hailing service such as Lyft or Uber. The Lyft application you install on your phone to request a ride from this type of service is only one component of a very complex system. Lyft is a marketplace that matches a demand—“I need to get somewhere”—with an offer—I have a car and can drive.” This marketplace calls for a variety of subsystems and components to work together. Besides the passenger app you experience on your phone, there is also a driver app that drivers install on their phones. Both of these apps rely on a complex technology stack in smartphones and on the network. Elements of this stack include the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS) to pinpoint your location, mapping services, user interface systems, financial systems to charge you and pay the driver, and more.
Consider all of the systems that make possible an application such as Lyft, shown in Figure 8-2. An understanding of how these systems work in concert to create a marketplace is what makes the service work.
All of the components that make up the Lyft app ecosystem are incredibly complex systems on their own; just the mapping system would be a very high entry barrier if the company had to create it from scratch. The fact that such systems exist and that developers can easily recombine them into new systems is one of the advantages of working with modern information environments.
In any case, the key point is that just as physical environments such as buildings are systems composed of various subsystems, the same is true of information environments. Good design requires understanding how the whole works, and this, in turn, requires an understanding of what the parts and subsystems are and how they integrate and interact with each other in a way that creates a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
What Systems Are (and Why They Matter)
A system is a set of elements connected to each other in ways that allow them to form complex wholes toward a particular goal. While it may seem like a somewhat abstract subject, systems are everywhere; they are part of our day-to-day experience. But the fact that systems are pervasive doesn’t mean they’re obvious. Understanding systemic relationships calls for looking at things holistically—looking at the big picture. This is not easy. We usually want quick, easy answers to problems, so we break things down into smaller chunks that we can understand. Understanding complex wholes is unintuitive, difficult, and time-consuming. However, given how important systems are in the creation of information environments, it’s important to understand them.
Let’s look at an everyday example. You’ll often hear people talk about wanting to lose or gain weight. (Mostly the former.) You’ll see them modify their behavior in the pursuit of this goal. They’ll eat less, eat different things, exercise more, or all of the above. They’ll measure the effects of these actions by weighing themselves and taking note of the numbers to see how they vary over time. They will notice their clothes fitting more loosely, and will look at themselves in the mirror and notice changes to the shape of their body.
In doing these things, they have tapped into the power of a system. Diet and exercise are levers the person uses to influence this system. (Eating less will have one effect; eating more, another.) Weight, the shape of their body, and the fit of their clothes are the feedback mechanisms that let the person know whether or not the levers produce the desired effect. Paying attention to what’s going on allows these people to notice changes over time. If they vary how they eat and exercise, their weight and the fit of their clothes will vary.
This seems like a simple system. But as anyone who’s tried to manage his or her weight knows, it’s not easy to do in practice. That’s because there’s much more to the system than this simple model allows. For one thing, there are aspects of the system that are not obvious to the dieter. For example, varying the intake of food and exercise affects the body’s metabolism, changing how it uses up energy. As a result, the effects of manipulating these control points are not linear. For another, the dieter’s mind is also a component of the system—and the mind can do tricky things, like becoming frustrated at the lack of progress, or accepting exceptions just this once, or going nuts at the office holiday party, or becoming disappointed by something someone else has said.
There are other components of this system that are even harder to see directly. For example, the pursuit of a particular body shape is a goal suggested to us by our culture, a broader system we participate in whether we want to or not. Also, some people’s body chemistry is just different from others’—the expected behavior of the system will not work the same for these people. The stewardship of this system will vary depending on what the dieter’s ultimate goal is. Their attitude and approach will be different if they’re dieting in service to a healthier body than if they’re dieting in service to a socially constructed image of what a good body looks like.
But enough of this weighty example. Let’s focus now on your work. Any project you undertake will be subject to systems dynamics that have parallels to body weight management. You’re expected to perform to certain standards as you strive toward particular project goals. Perhaps you’ve committed to deliver some artifact by a particular date, and there are consequences tied to your ability to meet this goal. Working toward the goal may require some struggle on your part; perhaps you need to stay up late for a few nights in a row or put off going on a vacation. Incentives drive you to make these sacrifices; perhaps there’s a bonus if you deliver on time—carrot—or you may lose your job if you fail—stick. You’ll recall these as remunerative and coercive incentives, respectively.
Whatever the case, you’re participating in this system. Your effectiveness will at least depend on
whether you understand the goals you’re driving toward—for example, delivering a particular thing to a particular standard by a particular date
whether you understand what you’re being measured on—for example, is the date more important than the quality of the work?
whether the appropriate feedback mechanisms are in place—for example, regular check-ins to validate that things are going in the right direction—and everyone understands them
You’ll notice that all three of these conditions call for better communications. For this system to work effectively, you and the person who has requested the work need to be on the same page—that is, speak the same language. Most of the problems I’ve encountered in projects have been due to communications breakdowns. This is something you must proactively work at, because in many cases these systems lack good communication mechanisms. And, of course, your mind is also a component of the system. The same mind tricks that can trip you up when managing your weight can affect your performance at work. This is aggravated by the fact that most people work in groups, and groups bring with them interpersonal dynamics and politics, which add a great deal of noise and complexity.
Let’s look at a few critical systems concepts by examining a complex system you’re familiar with: your body.
A System Has Goals
Systems are not just random collections of parts; the parts work together toward achieving one or more goals. For example, your body consists of various organs—your liver, brain, lungs, and so on—and subsystems—your digestive system, your circulatory system, and so on—working in concert to make a more complex whole: you. These organs and subsystems are all working to support their own goals. For example, the digestive system converts food into energy your body can use. And, of course, the broader system that is your body is working toward a goal as well: staying alive.
A System Has Resources That Ebb and Flow
Systems require resources to operate. Some of these resources are stored in the system as stock for future use, while others flow through the system as needed. For example, you can’t go very long without breathing because the body doesn’t have mechanisms to keep oxygen in reserve. On the other hand, your body also requires energy, which it acquires mainly from the food you eat. A few days without eating won’t kill you, since the body stores some of this energy as fat. You can map the flow of energy in the body as it undergoes these various transformations.
A System Has Feedback Mechanisms
Systems have the means to monitor the state of their components and adjust their functions accordingly. Your body lets you know when it needs more energy—sleepy! hungry!—when it needs to cool off, and more. If you feel thirsty, you drink, which keeps an essential resource—water—in balance within your body. You’d be in deep trouble if these feedback mechanisms failed.
A System Has a Boundary
The collection of parts that make up a system is not limitless: there’s a clear difference between the world inside the system and the world outside. For example, your body makes energy from food, a resource that comes from outside the system. You put it into the system through your mouth, and your digestive system breaks it down so the necessary chemicals can enter your system. In the case of your body, the boundary between the system and the outside world is palpable: it’s the surface of your skin. 
 Pask, Gordon. “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics.” Architectural Design, September 1969, Issue 7/6. “Architects are first and foremost system designers who have been forced, over the last 100 years or so, to take an increasing interest in the organizational (i.e., nontangible) system properties of development, communication, and control.”
 Where we place the boundary of a system is dependent on what we’re interested in studying. If we’re looking at the individual organism, the skin may be a useful boundary. But if we’re interested in how the organism procures its food, we need to expand that boundary to include the organism’s environment.
Discount for UXmatters Readers—Buy Living in Information online from Rosenfeld Media, using the discount code UXMATTERS, and save 20% off the retail price.
Adjunct Professor, Interaction Design, at the California College of the Arts (CCA)
Oakland, California, USA
Over the past two decades, Jorge has designed information environments for all types of organizations, ranging from developing-world nonprofits to Fortune 500 corporations. He produces information environments that help people understand and interact with their world more effectively. A trained architect, Jorge is passionate about the architecture of physical spaces, which influences his work as an information architect. Jorge is coauthor of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, the fourth edition of O’Reilly’s celebrated “polar bear” book, and author of Living in Information, for Two Waves Books. He is also a frequent speaker at global UX conferences and has served the global UX community as president and director of the Information Architecture Institute and as thematic director of the first World IA Day. Read More