Sheryl Cababa is the Chief Strategy Officer of Substantial, an experience design consultancy based in Seattle. She’s the author of Closing the Loop, a new book about systems thinking in design. The book emphasizes the role designers can play as catalysts for social change, and that is the focus of our conversation.

Show notes

Rosenfeld Media provided a review copy of Sheryl’s book.

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Jorge: Cheryl, welcome to the show.

Sheryl: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to talk to you, Jorge.

Jorge: Well, I’m excited to talk with you. You just published a book for Rosenfeld Media called Closing the Loop, which is about a subject that is near and dear to my heart. So I’m very excited to talk with you about it. Folks who might not be familiar with you might want to know more about you; how do you go about introducing yourself?

About Sheryl

Sheryl: I am a design researcher and strategist. I’m currently the chief strategy officer for a small consultancy primarily based in Seattle called Substantial. We work quite a bit in education and I drive the research and strategy practice there. My background is as, you know, for the last decade or so, as a design consultant. So, working with different consultancies including Frog, Adaptive Path, Artifact. And prior to that, I spent the first decade of my career as a UX and product designer. I worked for Microsoft; I worked for Phillips Design. And I think all of those experiences lead to essentially where I position myself in the practice right now, which is as a design strategist — as somebody who thinks about multidisciplinary collaboration but using design thinking and design methods. And that’s where I find a really nice intersection between design thinking and systems thinking, which my book is about.

Jorge: The book, I think of it primarily focused on systems thinking, right? And it felt to me like the callout to design thinking might be because that might be a framework that designers are more familiar with than systems thinking. Is that a fair take?

Combining design thinking and systems thinking

Sheryl: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like as I started integrating systems thinking into my practice, I didn’t stop engaging with design thinking methodology because, that is… I’m a designer by nature, so that was my background and how I approached the work. But as I read about systems thinking and started integrating, for example, some of the systems mapping processes into my practice, I felt like, “Oh! There’s some really good synergy here between design thinking and systems thinking,” that I feel like I’ve never seen written about. And now I know there are many other practitioners in this space who are focused on that intersection, and I learned about that through the process of writing this book.

But I think what I really wanted to focus on was this idea of combining the two things in a meaningful way and also attempting to make systems thinking accessible for design practitioners. So, they’re not going to hang up their designer job, right? As soon as they start becoming a systems thinker and suddenly you start doing only formalized systems thinking practices. There has to be a way in order to combine these things so that they work together and that they intersect in a way that’s meaningful for the design practice and what designers tend to deliver on, the things that they’re focused on, and the processes that they use.

Jorge: It might be worth unpacking the differences between three concepts. One is systems thinking, obviously, and I want to get into what that is. But particularly the distinction between design thinking and user-centered design. The first chapter of the book is called “The Shortcomings of User-Centered Design,” which suggests that what you’re talking about here, this integration — this fusion — between systems thinking and design thinking might be a response to what you see as the shortcomings of user-centered design. I mean that’s how I approached it, and I was wondering if you could draw distinctions between those and then tell us about these shortcomings of user-centered design.

Shortcomings of user-centered design

Sheryl: I think oftentimes as practitioners we conflate design thinking with user-centered design. I think design thinking does actually inherently embody some of these notions of multiple stakeholders — some at the systems level, etc. But I think especially, at least in the realm of design in which I’ve engaged for most of my career, which is technology-industry focused, the design thinking process gets implemented as a user-centered process. So, thinking pretty much primarily, if not exclusively, about the user and playing the role of user advocacy as a design practitioner. And I think there are some problems with this.

One is that the way we tend to approach it, or tend to try to understand the user experience is by articulating things like pain points or an understanding of context, in the context of a person’s direct benefit of use of the products that we’re designing or services that we’re designing. So, how does a person experience this tool or product or service in the moment and as an individual?

And I think there’s some drawbacks to that. One is that it narrows how we think about users of products. Like, that means we’re not thinking about how people are affected who might not even be users of our products. And it might narrow our thinking about users themselves. So, thinking about individuals might leave out differing behaviors or impacts on people as groups or segments or populations. I think a lot about, for example, populations that are marginalized when we’re engaging in product design. It might mean people who are from historically under-resourced backgrounds. I do a lot of work in education and a lot of the strategy work that we do is focused on like, how do we help create better outcomes for Black and LatinX students in the US?

And I think a lot of times if you look at ed-tech that’s developed in that space, it’s pretty agnostic to who are under-resourced students and who aren’t. And so, they’re just interested in maybe how students experience their products as users — and maybe not even students, but how teachers or buyers experience their products. And so, there’s this kind of narrow range of focus that has an impact all the way around in terms of how we approach designing solutions. Design thinking should be more broad than that, and I think the intersection of systems thinking helps broaden it even further in that you’re thinking about how things are interconnected and how there’s…

I have three key concepts. One is like that everything is interconnected. There’s causality that you need to consider: what happens beyond the direct benefit of use and how does impact radiate out from what you’re doing? That includes unintended consequences. And then lastly, there’s wholeness; thinking about the entirety of a system rather than just the one piece that you’re designing for. So, if you’re designing an app, oftentimes you’re thinking about like how somebody experiences this app. How do you make it work? How do you make the user experience fluid? But it’s really important to think about the system in which that app sits. Those are the key concepts for systems thinking and that’s how I think it can intersect really well and account for some of these shortcomings of user-centered design.

Jorge: What I’m hearing there is that design thinking doesn’t prescribe a particular level of focus, right? And user-centered design, as traditionally practiced, takes those practices and narrows the lens so that it excludes the context in which a lot of second- and third-order impacts of those interactions manifest. You talked about the broader context in which a user is interacting. And I was going to ask you about these three concepts — interconnectivity, causality and wholeness — but it might be worthwhile to step back and give a definition or just a high level description of systems thinking itself, just to draw a sharp line, particularly between systems thinking and design thinking.

Systems thinking

Sheryl: Systems thinking… I think essentially I’ll just paraphrase the way… Donella Meadows, who wrote Thinking in Systems, describes a system as interconnected parts or entities, and as they form a system, that system has its own purpose or outcomes. So, for example, you as an individual might be part of a system and you have certain incentives or desires for outcomes, and that could either map to how the system behaves or it could fly in the face of how a system behaves. The thing to acknowledge is that beyond the individuals in a system or various entities, the system itself has certain behaviors and a certain purpose. And we don’t always necessarily see that or acknowledge that in the course of user-centered design.

I also teach in the program at University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering program, and I feel like I hear from students sometimes about this idea of feeling uncomfortable about designing things that should operate at scale, but feeling like they don’t have the tools to think about how things might go wrong or like where exactly this sits or how it might have an impact on people in a negative way. And I think that can be addressed through a mindset shift that’s oriented around systems thinking.

So, for example, if you’re thinking about the incentives within your own organization and you’re oriented around creating solutions for which success is measured by, let’s say, daily active users, but you actually think people shouldn’t be using the product as frequently as that, then you’re not really designing for the needs of your end users. You’re designing for basically the capitalist requirements of the organization for which you’re working, because it’s incentivized in a certain way within the system, within the economy, within its sort of shareholder structure to measure things in a certain way that are really oriented around making the most money for this organization.

That’s maybe an example of how like a system might behave counter to an individual practitioner’s values. And I’m not suggesting that a design student has the ability to change capitalism, but there is something to being aware and acknowledging that that’s how things work because then you can better understand the parameters of where you can institute change. I don’t even know how far away I’ve strayed from your original question, but hopefully that helped answer it.

Jorge: No, that’s okay. And you’re bringing up a series of concepts that I did want to ask you about. It is very evident that social change is at the core of your focus in framing systems thinking in the book. But I was wondering about your expectations with regard to the reader’s ability to actually effect change at a level broader than the context in which they’re being asked to operate. So, for example, I know a lot of designers who are working as product designers within organizations, right? And they’ve been tasked maybe with making their products more usable. Or another common one that I see is integrating a new product that has been acquired into a portfolio of products, right? So that can be a really complex challenge. But it’s not a challenge that is aimed specifically at affecting some kind of broader social change.

And potentially one of the risks of this particular lens might be that in looking at a ever broader context, the designer might get frustrated at their lack of agency over some of these broader constructs that they’re dealing with. And I’m wondering how you would address that. I mean, you’ve already spoken of working within education where I can see how these issues would play out in that domain. But have you encountered any designers working in the field struggling with that? And if so, what can they do to address that mismatch between their values and their degree of agency, I guess is the question?

Perception of agency

Sheryl: Yeah, it’s a really good question, actually. I appreciate how you phrased it because I think this gets asked of me a lot. Usually, it’s framed specifically around an individual designer’s lack of agency. But I like how you’ve integrated what underlies that question a lot of the time, which is like, “Oh, Sheryl. You’re lucky because you get to work in a space that is oriented around social impact. And so, this is fundamentally part of your work.” Someone could just be what they consider themselves a lowly designer in a corporate setting where they’re working on SaaS software or something like that. And how do they potentially integrate this thinking without encountering the frustration of not being able to do anything about it?

One: it’s a good question. Two: I think that social change aspect is in the traditional systems thinking texts — think about Donella Meadow’s book or Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Another one I would mention is Peter Checkland’s work from… it goes far back, to like the 1970s, and these intersections of organizational change management and systems thinking. I do think there is a latent suggestion within those texts of social change. So, whether it’s at the organizational level — Peter Senge’s work for example, is really oriented around using systems thinking to institute organizational change — if you are in a corporate setting or what have you, how can you use systems thinking to understand the way decisions might play out? How an organization is structured? Who the stakeholders are? And that’s one way you can use systems thinking. There’s also a text that I really like: David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Change. And that is pretty explicit about this idea of applying systems thinking to social and societal change.

I think there are ways that designers can use systems thinking methods to expand their mindset beyond just individual things that they are designing for that don’t necessarily fall into the range of societal change. But maybe there’s a piece of incremental change, whether it’s like organizational, or whether it’s like within your product and how your product serves people.

I sometimes use the example of an intern I worked with at one of the previous consultancies I was at. She was working on emerging technology and she was tasked with designing a use case for those people who are kind of like loyalty customers at like hotel chains and things like that. So, pretty privileged set of people. And she didn’t like that, nor did she think it was even like pushing the needle on the technology she was working on. And she felt like it served this very privileged class of people, when you think about the system of people who will be using this. And so, she pitched a different use case that was oriented around a population with a specific type of disability and argued that this was a better use case to focus on. You could serve more widely different people within the system and there are other people who would benefit. And they agreed with her and that’s what she ended up working on.

And if you think about her purported agency within the system, she was an intern at a consultancy that was working with a client. Like, there is no lower level of person within an organization. But she managed to kind of institute change in order to create something meaningful to work on. And I think there is some layer of systems thinking when it comes to those ways of making decisions or arguing for what you think is right.

And you could do that at the level… like, you could even use systems thinking at the team level. I was talking to somebody the other day and saying there are some of these systems mapping things that you can even do in terms of analyzing how people behave or like the communication within your own family, and it was somebody saying the iceberg model would be a good way to figure out why people behave in a certain way within your own family. And I was like, I’ve never thought about using it that way, but it actually makes so much sense, because so much of this is understanding people’s dynamics with each other and how behavior is reflective of that and how you can arrive at root cause of why things are the way they are.

And so I don’t think it’s limited to societal change necessarily. We could just be talking about organizational change. We could just be talking about how you think about features within the course of what you’re working on: if you’re working on an app, how it connects to other entities within the system. When I was a product designer, I worked for a long time on a personal financial management tool. And the way this thing connected to different banks that had different systems and what have you; I was having to engage in systems thinking without even knowing. And I wish I had the tools at the time to be able to talk about it the way I could talk about it today in order to basically make better product-level decisions just by understanding how these things interact with each other.

Jorge: The iceberg model… I’m just going to say this, because you mentioned it in passing, and the iceberg model is a very useful system centric framework for understanding situations, challenges, etc. And it’s one of many such frameworks in the book. It’s one of the things I appreciated about the book, that it lays out this kind of menu of different frameworks that one can use to analyze situations. And I want to circle back to your example with this intern who made that proposal. I have this thing that I often say that designer’s superpower is the ability to make possibilities tangible and bring them to life so that they are more meaningful than, you know, numbers on a spreadsheet so that you can explore the consequences.

And you have this quote in the book that really resonated with me, you say, “ It is possible for employees, customers, and other stakeholders to hold an organization’s leadership’s feet to the fire when it comes to vision and mission statements. By making these idealistic world-changing words real, you can also reduce unintended consequences and negative externalities.” And when you were bringing up this example of the intern changing the brief, so to speak, for the design problem, what I was wondering was the conditions under which that person was working. You mentioned that it was in a consultancy. We are in an economic environment right now where there’s layoffs happening and so many designers are now looking for work, right? And I’m just wondering if changing the brief in the way that you described is something that a lot of designers are going to have the opportunity to do, or if they have the ability to employ systems thinking to work within the brief that they’ve been given, to the best of their capacity, whatever that brief is.

Rethinking agency

Sheryl: Yeah. Of course, there are different levels of designers within organizations, and I guess with different levels of power of decision-making. I guess there’s something… is this unique to the design practice or not? But I hear this question a lot, where it feels like designers really lack agency. Are you sure they can use this in order to change things? And I think maybe there’s an assumption of a lack of agency that maybe we need to interrogate a little as a practice. Because if we actually lack that much agency, how effective can we be as designers to begin with?

If we’re thinking about designers as always being in the position of doing production-level work, then you’re not going to have the kind of agency that it requires to be able to use your design skills for innovation, for example. Not even talking about systems thinking; let’s just talk about coming up with good ideas, ideating and expanding the idea of what form solutions might take. Then I don’t know that system thinking is necessarily going to help you. I mean, to be honest, I work with designers at all levels, and there are certain requirements within, let’s say…

My team works on educational courseware. And there are certain things like we don’t have a lot of control of. Like, we might not have a lot of control over the actual like curriculum of the courseware or, let’s say, the learning management systems that it has to integrate with. But we could have some control at the feature level for example. Like, my team recently integrated a communication feature based on an understanding of how different stakeholders communicate within the system, aside from the software.

So they did a little bit of analysis as far as like, “Okay, at the institutions –and this is in the higher ed space — in institutions where they’re using digital courseware, what are the areas in which we are lacking when it comes to how faculty interact with students? How the administration interacts with students? What are students really lacking in terms of how they use this in conjunction with the other things that they’re experiencing in these environments?” And they were able to come up with features that fell outside of the purview of basically what they were initially designing for in the courseware itself.

And I think that can exist for any product, especially if you are allowed to actually engage in ideation. If you’re actually allowed to engage in basically the design thinking process, there will be an opportunity for you to figure out where you can use systems thinking to further your innovation. And that might jump out at you through an understanding of the different stakeholders, what they’re incentivized by. That’s a form of systems thinking. It’s just like understanding what everyone’s incentives are beyond just like the user. Like, what are the barriers that these different people face who might not be users of the product that you are working on, and how does that intersect with all of the other, sort of…

I refer to the STEEP framework, for example, which is sociocultural, technological, economic, environmental, and political. Anything you’re designing for is either affected by or affects those layers of various kind of spaces of thinking about whatever it is you’re designing and you can apply that to broaden your thinking about your solutions, even if it means just adding a feature to the product that you’re working on.

So, what I’m saying is I would love for designers to think of themselves as having more agency than they actually do, even if they’re like an individual contributor. Even if they’re an intern. But I don’t know how much this will help those who truly are in a production-level capacity. I honestly think in some ways your design education is being a little bit wasted if that’s what you’re doing, right? Like, AI can do production-level capacity work right now. So, I think it’s like how do we get designers into a space where they are actually more of — I think I positioned it this way in the book too — where they’re more in a facilitation role rather than in just a straight up production role. And you can put yourself in that facilitation role even if you are producing artifacts.

Jorge: That’s very much my take on it as well. As I was saying earlier, I think that there is a superpower that designers bring to the team, and it can be deployed in ways that create much more value than just producing… you know, making the logo bigger or whatever it is. And the reason I asked is because I was wondering — particularly as I was reading your book — if the approach of thinking about transforming ever-broader contexts — I’m thinking of it as concentric circles, where it’s like, “I’ve been tasked with solving this one feature or whatever,” and expanding the context of focus to points where they might start impinging on things that stakeholders might consider strategic directions, if that might make the ability of designers to move beyond production roles harder, because they might be seen as a threat. I’m thinking of this lyric from that Beatles’ song, “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you’re not gonna make it with anyone, anyhow.” Right? And I’m wondering if that’s a thing, particularly in a challenging labor environment, you know?

Overcoming scarcity mindset

Sheryl: Yeah. I mean… I understand the challenging labor environment because my organization itself, like we’ve all had layoffs. My tiny organization has had to have layoffs. And I wonder if maybe there’s a risk aversion that we’re discussing right now, especially when we as a practice fall into this scarcity mindset. You know, like years and years… like, I swear to God, every year there’s some conversation about whether designers have a seat at the table, and I’m like, “maybe we don’t because we’re always talking about this.” I don’t feel like I hear about engineers constantly fixated on whether they have a seat at the table. And I think there’s some sort of obsession there. I don’t know what it is.

This is the first time this is coming up for me, by the way, and it feels like it’s really crystallizing itself. Even though I kind of hear these things, and I’m debating whether there’s a little bit of a learned helplessness there. Like, we find ourselves as minority players in a lot of the organizations we’re in. And so, that sort of infuses our mindset with this sort of scarcity point of view, where we need to stay in our lane. We can’t really surface ideas because that’s not our job. There’s someone with an MBA who is designing the terrible business model that our product is dependent on and…

I don’t know, a little bit of me wants to say like, screw that! If you have ideas for your organization and you think they’re good, make the case for it whether you think it’s in your lane or not. And I guess in some ways I also feel like I don’t want to get into the position of people being saying like, “Oh, well you’re lucky you’re at the top of your organization.” Well, I also work for clients, right? And clients have all sorts of ideas that I might not agree with, but I try as mightily as I can to push for the ideas that I think are right and are right in terms of… that map to our analysis that might show like, “This will have a better outcome.” And maybe it’s that orienting around an outcome that makes it easier for me, in terms of here’s what I think is worth arguing for. I want to see designers who feel more empowered, and there is the reality of being in organizations where they feel like they might be perceived as a threat, or what have you.

I’ve been there. I’ve been a designer in an organization of, you know, the sole designer on a product that has like 30 engineers working on it. You have to choose your battles in those kinds of organizations. But I do think there are some battles worth choosing. So, if somebody feels like it’s worth choosing, it just might require some alliance or mentorship or what have you. I think there’s a lot of actually systems thinking oriented around organizational change that helps to navigate this kind of space. But I love that you’re bringing it up because it comes up a lot and I don’t think I’ve ever had as explicit conversation about it as this.

Jorge: Well, it’s on my mind as someone who’s also educating folks to go into the workforce. But I love this idea of becoming aware of our potentially self-limiting beliefs and shedding them, right? And I think that one of the important contributions that you’re making with this book, like I was saying earlier, it’s providing these frameworks that people can take to look at whatever they’re dealing with a broader context and thinking about things like externalities and who else might be impacted and the second-order effects of decisions. So, thank you for sharing your know-how and expertise with us. Where can folks follow up with you?


Sheryl: I can be found on LinkedIn as just Sheryl Cababa. Easy to find; I’m the only person on earth who has that name. I’m also a little bit on Twitter, not as much lately, but you can find me there as well. It’s @sherylcababa.

And I have a couple of upcoming workshop and speaking engagements that I’m doing. So, I’ll be giving a systems thinking workshop and giving a talk at UX Lisbon. And that’s May 23rd to 26th. And then I am also giving a talk — a virtual talk — at Enterprise UX, which is a Rosenfeld Media Conference. And that talk will be on June 7th. So these are some upcoming places where you can find me.

Jorge: Thank you, Sheryl, for sharing with us.

Sheryl: Yeah, absolutely. This was a really fun conversation. It definitely went in directions I didn’t expect, so I really enjoyed that.

Jorge: I never know where these are going to go. This was fun.

Sheryl: Yeah, I agree.