My Systems Studio course’s final project calls for researching a problem domain and modeling a systemic intervention. Students practice conceptual mapping, systems modeling, feedback loops, etc., and explore the ethical implications of data-driven systems.
It’s high-level stuff, and students don’t have much time to present. And yet, a high percentage always skews towards screen-level artifacts. They dispense with ecosystem maps, journey maps, and system models in a few slides and devote the rest of their time to comps or wireframes.
This doesn’t do the subject justice. And yet, I don’t blame the students. They’re building portfolios; comps and wireframes are what recruiters want to see.
It's not just recruiters. In ‘real’ projects, stakeholders and other project actors always want to quickly get to the screens. And when I tell people I design software, I expect most think I draw user interfaces for a living.
Why are screen-level artifacts so popular?
It’s because people love stuff they can relate to. Ecosystem maps, conceptual models, and service design matrices are abstractions. They explore wholes, which are harder to evaluate than parts. We don’t have much experience with such things or the context to determine their worth.
Screens, on the other hand, are tangible. We’ve all interacted with systems at that level; many of us can tell whether a comp ‘works’ or not. It’s also easy to find examples of screen-level artifacts — portfolio sites such as Dribbble feature mostly UI-level work.
Conversely, it’s hard to find good examples of high-level artifacts. Fewer people are making (and therefore, sharing) concept maps, service design matrices, ecosystem diagrams, etc.
But also — and this is key — organizations don’t have incentives to publish high-level work. The likelihood of design artifacts being shared publicly is inversely proportional to their strategic value.
This is a problem for designers. We can add a lot of value beyond ‘production,’ but it requires that we work at a higher, more abstract level. It’s hard to do so when examples of what ‘good’ looks like are rare.
Besides Dubberly Design’s wonderful concept maps and models, have you seen good public examples of high-level design artifacts? Please let me know; it would help my students and other designers aspiring to work more strategically.