April 19, 2021

Moving from UCD to SOD

Two strategists from Dropbox and Medium discuss UCD and SOD

April 19, 2021

Our friends at Dropbox and Medium generously shared their thoughts on two modern approaches of User-Centered Design (UCD) and Systems-Oriented Design (SOD) and why choosing the right one for you is essential for the overall success of the project. FlowMapp editorial team thanks Devin and Alexis for such an exciting interview and hopes you all will find it fascinating too.

Devin Mancuso, Head of Design Strategy, New Frontiers at Dropbox

He works with Dropbox’s Strategy team to help shape the future of products and services for millions of users across the globe. His past roles include Design Strategist at Google and UX Design Lead for YouTube’s VR team; he has had the privilege of contributing to products and platforms across Google including Android, Pixel, Google Classroom, Chrome OS, YouTube, and Daydream.

Alexis Lloyd, VP of Product Design at Medium and Co-Founder at Ethical Futures Lab

Alexis is a design and innovation leader who has spent her career designing experiences for how we read, write, and share information on the internet. She is currently the VP of Product Design at Medium and has previously led design and innovation work at The New York Times R&D Lab, Axios, and Automattic. She co-leads the Ethical Futures Lab and has a deep curiosity for how humans and machines co-evolve with one another.

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With everything that happened in 2020, how do you feel the design industry is doing in early 2021? Are you expecting any significant trends in product design? Share some insights if you have them

The events of 2020 forced us to look up from our phones for a minute and begin to inspect some of the systems and power structures that govern the countries, cities, and societies that we live in. And, while the global conversation around some of these issues was more public than ever before, it also brought to light many of the complexities involved in changing these systems, and just how embedded they are within our cultural fabric and national economies.


The nature of the pandemic-related lockdown meant that overnight, almost all of our everyday interactions were completely intermediated by technology – from groceries to Friday happy hours. This meant we also had to come face-to-face with the uncomfortable truth that many of the apps that we rely on to provide us with a ‘comfortable’ experience are made possible by exploitative labor practices that leave one side of the labor equation significantly less well off.

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The events of 2020 forced us to look up from our phones for a minute and begin to inspect some of the systems and power structures that govern the countries, cities, and societies that we live in

Moving forward to 2021, these experiences — not to mention the political history of the last 5 years — are changing what we expect from ourselves as designers, as well as what others expect of us. As we move from a social model where digital platforms are ‘just products’ to a model where they are understood to have transformative social impact, the makers of those platforms will increasingly be held accountable for those outcomes.


Things are also getting increasingly complex in terms of the sheer scale and intricacy of the systems we are working on day-to-day, and in some ways we’re finding ourselves unprepared to tackle these challenges given our existing user-centered design frameworks.

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Where does UCD fall short? 

It’s worth calling out that prior to the development of user-centered design, technological experiences were primarily designed through the lens of business needs. The needs of the user were only considered insofar as they furthered or hindered those goals, but it was the bottom line that was firmly the focal point of that approach.


User-centered design (UCD) was developed in reaction to those blind spots. It advocated for a design practice that instead focused on the person using the technology, and was intended to create experiences based on an understanding of their needs and goals. This practice has produced some amazing products and technical innovations. And, for designers who entered the industry in the past decade or so, UCD has become the default mindset and approach. By empathizing with users and designing with their needs and wants in mind, we have strived to create products that are more helpful, more intuitive, and less stressful. Certainly many of the digital tools and platforms we use today would not have been possible without the contributions of designers and the user-centered approach.

User-centered design infographics


Putting the user at the center of our process has undoubtedly helped us create interactive systems that are more useful and usable than their predecessors. However, whenever we center something in a system, we give it more of our focus; we privilege it above the other elements in the system, often to the detriment of the broader system.


With such a narrow focus it’s easy to miss the needs and desires of other actors in the system, or the relationships between various people, services and infrastructure that form the system.


Here are three key gaps that we’ve identified:

  • First, by focusing on the user, UCD has a tendency to obscure the experiences of other participants in the systems we design — those who aren’t end users, per se, but who interact with or are affected by the system.
  • Second, by focusing on ease of use, the approach obscures the friction in an experience. Often that friction doesn’t disappear, but instead gets offloaded on to others whose experiences are less visible or less privileged.
  • Finally, UCD’s focus on ‘successful’ experiences obscures possibilities that lie outside of predetermined success metrics, preventing us from designing for uncertainty, failure, or experimentation in the ways we might.
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How should we respond to these gaps in UCD? 

We believe that going forward, designers will need to begin supplementing their traditional design approach with other lenses in addition to UCD. We think that, in particular, the lens of systems thinking, when added to traditional UCD techniques, can help us to expand our perspective.


Systems thinking is intended to help us see how many complex elements interact; to understand a diversity of participants and the structures that connect them; and to aid us in modelling how a particular design will affect everyone participating within the system.


By bringing these two practices together, we can provide ourselves with a robust toolkit that is appropriate to the complexity and scale of the challenges we face as designers today.

Systems thinking + UCD = solution to complexity and scale to design challenges
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Does this mean we’re leaving UCD behind, or can it be a part of the system approach?

UCD is ultimately just a lens through which we approach our work, there’s nothing implicitly right or wrong about it. Any framework is a lens that focuses on some things and obscures others. 


This isn’t an A-or-B scenario, we’re not advocating replacing UCD with a competing framework, rather we’re suggesting that designers augment their approach to problem solving by utilizing additional lenses, in particular a systems-centric lens to better meet the present-day challenges. 


For example, one approach we have been exploring is creating personas for non-users or designing non-happy paths. These are taking UCD practices and expanding upon them.

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User-centered design is ultimately just a lens through which we approach our work, there’s nothing implicitly right or wrong about it. Any framework is a lens that focuses on some things and obscures others

It’s likely that many of the same tools and artifacts can be used even when coming at them from a systems perspective. In fact, artifacts such as personas and participant maps could evolve, beyond just static definitions of users to much more rich visualizations of the dynamic relationships between participants and elements of the system.

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So how should a designer begin to approach systems-oriented design? What are the first steps?

It’s worth calling out that while we are proposing an expansion of what designers should consider, that doesn’t necessarily mean that designers should take it all on by themselves. 


Systems theory and Systems thinking is already a massive field of research and academics. We must be careful to not just co-opt some basic system thinking concepts and try to adapt them to our process, but instead to invite experienced practitioners from the Systems fields into our organizations and our design teams and begin to develop new ways of thinking and solving problems together. 


That being said, one simple thing that designers can do today is an activity like system mapping. 


In order to better understand the complex systems we work on, we must take our abstract understanding and begin creating more concrete representations to express our assumptions and understanding. A system map can help us do just that, simplifying the often-overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying the various elements, actors and interconnections and incorporating them into a simpler story.

people work in the office


A simple system map shows the actors involved in a system and the flow of value (information, goods, money) between them (‘We give you A and in return you give us B’). A system map is incredibly useful for creating a quick visual description of the system (or business model) you are operating within. By identifying how value flows, we can start to identify where actors are being rewarded and how they are being incentivized to act, or not. Ultimately, mapping out your system can also help you identify areas where your understanding is not as complete, and can enable teams to form a common understanding of how their system operates.


  • Define the actors in your system, those who are involved in creating, delivering, capturing value (think users, creators, brands, merchants, partners, etc). Be sure to go beyond the obvious actors and include peripheral participants. For example, you might consider actors like government regulators, dependencies in your supply chain, or existing businesses that are being disrupted by yours.
  • Start mapping the three flows of value among the actors: money, goods, and information. Draw arrows between various actors indicating which way the value flows.
  • Look at how actors are being incentivized or disincentivized within your system, how is this impacting their behavior? Are the incentives consistent with the espoused goals of your users? Consider whether or not your incentive flows help your actors or harm them.
UCD mapping


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And, lastly, what would you say to the designers who are just starting their careers in the industry? 

One of the most important things to understand is that there is no single perfect process or framework. Good work can happen in lots of different ways. When you’re taught a framework like UCD or Design Thinking, it’s intended to be descriptive — someone is distilling useful approaches they’ve found so that others can apply them. But very often these approaches are understood as prescriptive, where designers who are trained in these methods take them as gospel and struggle to create outside of a given process.


Our best advice would be to approach all of these frameworks as tools in your toolbox. Depending on the project, the people you’re collaborating with, the time constraints, or the goals, you’ll reach in and use a different set of tools in different situations. Learn to develop your instincts for what will lead to the best work in a given situation. Be flexible, innovative, and creative, that’s what makes the work fun!

Edited by:

Serafima Aleksandrova

Denis Komutkov