The following text is the pre-edited version of an interview of Hugh Dubberly by Dan Saffer. The interview was performed via email in February of 2006, and was later published in Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices.


What is systems design?

Systems design is simply the design of systems. It implies a systematic and rigorous approach to design—an approach demanded by the scale and complexity of many systems problems.


Where did it come from?

Systems design first appeared shortly before World War II as engineers grappled with complex communications and control problems. They formalized their work in the new disciplines of information theory, operations research, and cybernetics. In the 1960s, members of the design methods movement (especially Horst Rittel and others at Ulm and Berkeley) transferred this knowledge to the design world. Systems design continues to flourish at schools interested in design planning and within the world of computer science. Among its most important legacies is a research field known as design rationale, which concerns systems for making and documenting design decisions.


What can designers learn from systems design?

Today, ideas from design methods and systems design may be more relevant to designers than ever before—as more and more designers collaborate on designing software and complex information spaces. Frameworks suggested by systems design are especially useful in modeling interaction and conversation. They are also useful in modeling the design process itself.


What is the most important thing to be aware of in systems design?

A systems approach to design asks:

  • For this situation, what is the system?
  • What is the environment?
  • What goal does the system have in relation to its environment?
  • What is the feedback loop by which the system corrects its actions?
  • How does the system measure whether it has achieved its goal?
  • Who defines the system, environment, goal, etc.—and monitors it?
  • What resources does the system have for maintaining the relationship it desires?
  • Are its resources sufficient to meet its purpose?


Is systems design incompatible with user-centered design?

A systems approach to design is entirely compatible with a user-centered approach. Indeed, the core of both approaches is understanding user goals. A systems approach looks at users in relation to a context and in terms of their interaction with devices, with each other, and with themselves.


What is the relationship between systems design and cybernetics?

Cybernetics (the science of feedback) provides an approach to systems and a set of frameworks and tools. Among the most important ideas for designers:

  • Definition of a system depends on point of view (subjectivity)
  • We are responsible for our actions (ethical stance)
  • All interaction is a form of conversation
  • All conversation involves goals, understandings, and agreements


Are there times when systems design isn’t appropriate?

A systems approach to design is most appropriate for projects involving large systems or systems of systems. Such projects typically involve many people, from many disciplines, working together over an extended period of time. They need tools to cope with their project’s complexity: to define goals, facilitate communications, and manage processes. Solo designers working on small projects may find the same tools a bit cumbersome for their needs.

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36 Comments

  • winston tupas

    Jul 29, 2008
    12:07 am

    thank you very much in providing us an very important infprmation in system design…thank you

  • jasel javier

    Nov 27, 2008
    12:59 am

    Thank you for giving us a summary type information. thanks a lot..

  • Jade Cadelina

    Jan 7, 2009
    7:05 pm

    Very important article. Thank you. :)

  • Mary Gra ce Diaz

    Nov 19, 2009
    6:19 pm

    Thank you for having this kind of information.

  • king samson taylor

    Apr 5, 2011
    2:59 am

    thank you 4 your help,we are very grateful.

  • abdallah H. Nkini

    Jun 6, 2011
    3:18 pm

    I like this article….its great

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    Aug 31, 2011
    9:24 am

    [...] Dubberly commented [...]

  • Salmi,Nelly

    Oct 6, 2011
    1:48 am

    Thank a lot,next time include the consideration of it.

  • milan

    Oct 23, 2011
    12:39 am

    thankx a lot for sharing me nice information

  • omar hadhar

    Dec 26, 2011
    5:28 am

    increase the explanations in breafly but more understable by user thanks

  • jonathan

    Dec 27, 2011
    7:41 am

    its clear and understandable,,,,,,,,,thanx anyway

  • har har

    Jan 3, 2012
    3:38 am

    i have a question .. what is har har ..

  • zacharia justin

    Feb 12, 2012
    1:55 am

    I like it. But u didn’t explain how can i design.

  • Emmanuel Lesela

    Feb 13, 2012
    3:38 am

    this is very helpful to students but please provide more example because i found them very helpful.

  • md.danish anwer

    Feb 19, 2012
    10:13 pm

    hi ,i really happy to share with you. i studied from your page. its a very important subject but finally i got it my dear friend. thanking you. MD. DANISH ANWER

  • naina gooreeah

    Mar 29, 2012
    12:02 am

    thanks 4 this artice… its great…

  • tendai

    Apr 21, 2012
    12:02 am

    Great Article, well presented!

  • terra shaddy

    May 3, 2012
    1:18 am

    thanks for giving me this acticles it has help me alot

  • manish

    Jun 5, 2012
    12:34 am

    nice i like its

  • prince

    Jun 20, 2012
    10:14 am

    dis article is jst ok, buh u guys should go deeper on d definition nxt tym……tnx alot

  • mohammad auwal

    Jul 10, 2012
    3:35 am

    This summary short note has indeed covared many importand issues

  • Abdulrafiu Yusuf

    Aug 31, 2012
    2:10 am

    I found this info highly usful. Thank u.

  • lindsay bird

    Sep 12, 2012
    4:36 am

    thank u 4 the information its very relavent

  • Paultu Bukie

    Sep 28, 2012
    5:17 am

    Thanks Hugh, your work on system design is very elaborate. Its has broadened my horizon. I am grateful!

  • barkha

    Sep 28, 2012
    8:47 am

    thanx a lot………ths article helps me alot

  • vijay bembalkar

    Oct 17, 2012
    11:43 am

    Very good information on systems.

  • abipaul

    Dec 21, 2012
    12:51 pm

    its something really necessary to know about it.. THANKS

  • MATTHEW

    Dec 29, 2012
    1:59 am

    please i need help, i have a work that is cracking my brain here…….please would u help me with this question: Describe your university or college as a system. -what is the input? -what is output -what is boundary? -what is the components and their relationship? -the constraints -the environment…. I will b vry grateful if u can giv me a link on how dis question can b answer

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    Feb 18, 2013
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    [...] embedded microprocessor designs involve processing some kind of input to produce some kind of output, and [...]

  • Esther

    Mar 28, 2013
    1:08 am

    Thanx for the information since its beneficial to us IT students

  • cathy

    Apr 26, 2013
    6:04 am

    thank u

  • komal

    Jun 18, 2013
    12:58 am

    thank u

  • yasodhavinoth

    Jul 12, 2013
    9:53 pm

    Thank you for having this information.. i want brief information about system design..because i will take seminar for my friends…

  • [...] http://www.dubberly.com/articles/what-is-systems-design.html [...]

  • V.P.YADAV

    Apr 2, 2014
    10:16 pm

    I HAVE WANT TO BREAFLY INFORMATION ABOUT THE SYSTEM ANLYSIS AND DESIGN

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