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The Design of the Systems Course

I’ve applied for a speaking position for Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013 at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.  My submission is toward the wonderfully punctuated theme of “teaching (systemic design or), system thinking in design (or design in system approaches).”

Here is my abstract:

The goal of this talk will be to communicate the approach and outcomes of a 16 week studio course developed over the past two years to teach systems thinking to undergraduate interaction designers at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The plan for the final presentation is to provide symposium attendees with a narrative describing the thinking behind the course design, learning objectives, and activities as well as a report of my experience teaching and revising the course over the past two years. The value to attendees will be as a model and case study of one successful (as judged from student feedback) approach to relating system thinking and design.

The course was developed as part of starting up an entirely new undergraduate program in Interaction Design at CCA. The vision with which I won the commission to originate the course framed the learning objectives as a growth process beginning with learning to see the systems around us, moving on to being able to model them conceptually, and closing with how to produce change in them, both in a general sense and within the context of interactive experiences.

My first step in translating this vision into a workable syllabus was an extensive online search of the public web for like syllabi. I found essentially zero publicly available references that addressed my proposed framework directly. This was when I realized I actually needed to design this design course!

I saw this innovation challenge mainly in term of creating a new, dynamic narrative for existing formal system thinking constructs that would make these ideas relevant to the digitally native sophomores (roughly 19 year olds) taking the course. Therefore, I opened the course with a lecture in which I use a ‘ripped from the headlines’ method to demonstrate both how designing interactive experiences in today’s world requires an understanding of systems and also how to use observations of events to see a system in terms of patterns, structure and containing context.

After setting the stage to begin a formal presentation of system thinking theory I pause for us to read out loud a love story: Arcadia, a play by Tom Stoppard. This masterpiece packs a doctorate’s worth of system thinking constructs–including time, structure, entropy, fractals, abduction vs induction and probability–into a 2.5 hour experience. But most importantly it provides a mechanism for me to communicate to the students the critical role that emotion plays in human systems. This becomes the implicit frame for the rest of the course.

Next we turn to the fertile time just after World War II in which thinkers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology more or less simultaneously developed Information Theory, Cybernetics and System Dynamics. We begin the conversation with System Dynamics because it is the most intuitive and least mathematically intimidating of the three. We use Donella Meadows’s wonderfully accessible “Thinking in Systems” as a basis for studio discussion and activities that bring to life the idea of a system as made up of stocks and flows. From this base we expand the definition of a system to “a structure of relationships between elements that accomplishes a purpose and is regulated by feedback.” This provides a frame to talk about system archetypes and the importance of patterns as a tool for system analysis.

The general behavioral patterns introduced by archetypes provided a segue to the formal treatment of regulation and control offered by Cybernetics. The main goal of this part of the course is to provide students with a way to see certain kinds of man-made systems as machines with inputs, outputs, predictable behaviors and discrete states. This ‘mechanical’ understanding of systems becomes a conceptual a bridge between the the initial ‘seeing systems’ material and the next phase of the course that I call “designing the digital machine.”

In this phase we use the idea of a digital machine to create a bounding framework for the application of modeling as a tool for designing interactive experiences. I introduce 5 specific models–conceptual, persona, data, object, interaction–and teach how they fit within the model-view-controller framework that describes software flow control, or the digital machine. We close out this phase of the course with a major project in which students develop models of a system with feedback and then use those models as the basis for a software interface.

The narrative for the final phase of the course uses the framework of Rittel’s Wicked Problem to create a launching pad for the students into an optimistic and aspirational future. The story we tell is that Rittel defined the wicked problem to explain the increasingly obvious failure of capital D Design as a top down planning exercise to solve social problems. This in turn led to a roughly 50 year period in which design played a minor apolitical role of delivering delight at an individual level. However, (the course narrative continues) for the interaction designers of today a new opportunity has arisen to combine an understanding of systems with the time compression of high bandwidth connectivity, device diversity, cloud services, and social networking to create bottom up mitigations for social problems. Students are then asked to work in teams to design an information system focused on mitigating communication challenges within a particular wicked context: in the first year we looked at the distribution of organic produce; in the second, the fishery supply chain.

The conceptual narrative described above is reinforced and given some degree of ‘muscle memory’ for the students through a series of 12 short lessons, the two longer form projects mentioned above, as well as an highly compressed two week training on using the system of HTML/CSS/Javascript to think–and design–in code. The outcome, based on my observations and reports from the students, is a successful 16 week experience that communicates a clear position with respect to the relationship between system thinking and design, the conceptual and tactical tools to implement this learning, and most importantly, the lesson that to design systems for humans means keeping in mind that, to paraphrase a character from Arcadia, emotion is the force that Newton left out.

FAQ: Digital Machine Theory 0.5beta

What is Digital Machine Theory?

It is a method I am developing to teach systems design to interaction design students.

I believe the theory demonstrates how to connect classical systems theory of the Forrester/Meadows school to the practice of interaction design.

The primary assertion is that interaction design may be understood as the design of a digital machine defined in terms of cybernetic principles.


I am not familiar with the terminology used to describe Digital Machine Theory.  Do you have a plain language presentation?

Why yes, I do!

I have prepared a series of 6 short lectures that explain the theory in plain language:

  1. What is a system?
  2. From System to Software
  3. The Conceptual Model
  4. The Interaction Model
  5. The Object Model
  6. The Data Model

What is the value of digital machine theory?

I propose the theory has value as:

  1. a theoretical framework to train individuals in the basics of software design practice
  2. a communication framework for planning the design or redesign of a software application

How did you come to develop it?

It is an outcome of my work as adjunct professor at California College of the Arts Interaction Design Program.  I teach a course called Systems to undergraduates.

Why are you calling it a beta release?

Because I am a nerd.  Also because I feel like beta sets an appropriate (in my world, at least) expectation for the quality level of both the theory itself and the materials I have put together to explain it.  I think it has some good bones, but the whole thing needs some banging on still.  Do so and send me comments, timsheiner at

Systems Syllabus

I am teaching my systems course at CCA for the second time this spring.  Student feedback from the first time was really positive, and I learned a great deal that I’ve built into this updated version.

At the high level, I’ve broken down the course like this:

  • Weeks 1-4: Classical System Theory
    • Introduction
    • The Emotional Content
    • Classical Systems
    • Feedback
  • Weeks 5-9: Systems and Software Design: Conceptual, Object & Data Models
    • Conceptual Model
    • Object & Data Model
    • Error Model
    • Interaction Model: La Enchilada Completa
    • Application One: Final Presentation
  • Weeks 10-15: The Nature of Wicked Problems & The Opportunities for Software Mitigations
    • The Web Interface Context
    • Wicked Problems
    • The Organization as Context
    • Software Mitigations
    • The Application as Narrative
    • Application Two Final Presentation

For all the details, here is a link to the full syllabus:

California College of Arts, IXDSN-210: Systems Syllabus

Zipcar’s Short Sighted Definition of a Customer

UPDATE – 10/21/12

One day after including an @zipcar in a tweet about this post, I received a call from Veronica at my local Zipcar office.

She explained that, being in my local office, she had a bit more control over my account than the person I’d spoken to previously at the call center.

She offered to re-instate my account to honor the non-refundable year subscription I’d paid for, and also to set it to automatically expire, rather than roll over, on its anniversary.

I accepted her offer.  The romantic ride up the coast in a convertible may yet happen.

I just recently quit my subscription with Zipcar.

This was not because of a problem.  Prior to ending my relationship with them, I had no issues with their product.  In fact, I was kind of impressed.  I’d thought the sign up process was pretty slick and efficient.  I had used a car one time and found the experience simple and satisfactory.

But then my situation changed.  For various reasons, totally unrelated to the Zipcar experience, my wife and I decided it made sense for us to buy a second car.  With this car, I was no longer going to need a Zipcar.  And even though I’d committed to a year subscription only a few months before, I decided that, while I was thinking about it, I’d cancel my subscription so that I didn’t forget about it and have it automatically renew.

I assumed that I could cancel online.


I had to call a number and deal with a person whose job it was to convince me not to quit.  She was reasonable, and polite, and got efficient when I made it clear my decision was made.  But still, this didn’t feel very good.

I had assumed that even though I was canceling, as I’d paid for a year’s membership, I’d stay a member until the term ended.  I had visions of splurging on a sexy convertible for a drive up the coast with the wife or something.


My ability to rent a car was terminated as soon as I cancelled the subscription, even though I’d paid for a year already, and no refund was coming to me.  That didn’t feel good either.

I had assumed that as soon as I quit my subscription, I’d stop getting the annoying promotional emails from Zipcar that I’d never opted into in the first place.


None of these behaviors are entirely unreasonable, nor is any one of them particularly egregious.

However, they do tell a sad story.

The narrative arc of  this story is how a person, me, who had a really positive brand image of a company he thought was cool and innovative but from whom he no longer needed service is taught, as the door hits him on the way out, that said company has a sales-driven corporate culture that understands customers only as individuals from whom the company is currently making money.

My feelings were hurt, but I’ll get over it.

However, if I ever decide that I, or perhaps my soon to be driving teenage sons, need a car sharing subscription, I’ll look somewhere other than Zipcar.