Systems of Systems

What is a product? And how do we design meaningful solutions with intangible interconnections?

Within the constraints of business co-creation and freedom of internal initiatives, my work at Zebra Technologies investigated a product shift from isolated hardware and software to integrated systems and agents. As Megan Neese so aptly said, “In this world, what is a product? Is the product the physical object and all of the associated data that it gathers, or is it the service that this information enables?” And therefore, as designers for an enterprise Internet of Things company, how, and do we, shift our thinking and processes?

Working closely with a colleague, we aspired to develop a core common terminology and framework for applying our existing design methods from a well-defined product space to a solutions view. Three important questions encapsulated our shift in thinking:

[1] What is a System?
Going back to the basics and taking inspiration from Thinking in Systems: A Primer, we consider individual elements, map interconnections, and define a function or purpose

[2] Who, or what, is our user?
Person, team, place, infrastructure, technology, data? Scaling around and breaking the mental model of what defines a user

[3] How do we navigate between ‘matter and meta’?
Often easier to grasp the objects, spaces, and services – but equally important to determine and iterate on the culture and society

Case Study

On a long-term co-creation project with a global transportation and logistics company, as the Design Lead I worked with a multi-disciplinary team to improve organizational and workflow processes through custom 3D imaging technology and edge analytics. Collaborating closely with a Senior Design Researcher, our process included ethnographic research, empathy mapping, a service design blueprint, workflow analysis, scaleable concepts for near future touch-points, and incremental implementation.

While the traditional user experience and service design processes have been effective in delivering an executable strategic vision in addition to useful and usable digital and physical concepts – how can we shift the project from product to solution centric using the questions above? Through a series of internal, cross-disciplinary workshops we have been experimenting with new ideation processes that can enable this shift.

[1] Components & Connections
Meticulously examining all the tech and non-tech elements to map unused capabilities and desired potentials. Brainstorming the ‘what ifs’ of integrating new features or establishing unseen connections.

[2] Context & Challenges
Taking a place based approach to define challenges and seek opportunities. How and does the context change based on time, environment, external demands?

[3] Culture & Community
Investigating societal norms and trends that define our mutual expectations, shared experiences, and subconscious actions. Using these as guiding principles, we invent new storylines.