Human-centered design versus system thinking for impactful innovations

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    CGIAR Initiative on Digital Innovation
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Top image: Berta Ortiz Crespo (Alliance Bioversity-CIAT)

Authors: Eva Valencia, Charlotte Schumann

Development organizations today rely on a wide array of methods to make their interventions more impactful, focused and demand-based. There are many methods based in social sciences that have been applied to this challenge in contexts like CGIAR. To make these more accessible, we propose a series of method dialogues, showing how different inclusive and participatory methods like Human-Centered Design (HCD)1 and System Thinking2, gender inclusion, or Scaling can be applied in projects. With this series, we aim at promoting transformative tools that can be used for different needs and challenges.

Here we will look at two key methodologies that research for development can use to understand complex challenges, the stakeholders involved and potential solutions> Human-Centered Design and System Thinking.

The scenario

Our example project aims at providing an alternative to the blanket fertilizer recommendations currently offered by extension services in many countries: a team of scientists have developed location-specific, season-tailored fertilizer recommendations for smallholder farmers. These advisory messages are being distributed through different channels such as community video screenings and on-field piloting. The initial adoption of the advisory messages delivered via community videos was good, but concerns were raised on the sustainability of this system without regular, physical follow ups from extension agents, and the team questioned whether the uptake could be further improved.

The two methods in action: How would HCD and System Thinking address this challenge?

The processes behind HCD and Systems Thinking take place in roughly the same sequence. In each, the design team will first Scope the context then Explore the problem.


HCD- led teams always start an innovation development process by inquiring into the “universe” of the problem. Several brainstorming and mapping tools are used to collect ideas, map the different aspects of the topic and even related vocabulary. After having mapped all the information and assumptions existent in the team, insights are expressed in a problem statement that clearly articulates the challenge to be solved from the users’ perspective and defines a goal. In our scenario, the HCD team would map their assumptions about who has a problem with the current fertilizer distribution, what exactly is known about each group’s perception of the problem and why this problem is worth solving for the team of researchers.

System Thinking focuses on understanding the boundaries of a system in a specific time and space according to the selected stakeholders with the help of wider maps. Those maps describe which are the elements of the system that you should consider as part of your analysis. In our scenario, these maps would show which are the fertilisers that are being used or that could be used, their characteristics and also who are the stakeholders and resources that may impact or get impacted by them.


After this first sorting exercise, Human-Centered Design sends you out to learn and discover together with your target group. In our scenario that would include interviewing farmers about fertilization techniques, pain points and current solutions, which sources they trust, and what is the problem with these from their point of view. This might differ significantly from the researchers’ perceptions documented in the Scope phase! In addition, it is of high importance to observe as much as possible. Beyond the users’ perspective, it is interesting to explore experts’ and other stakeholders’ perspectives on the topic, industry, and larger trends. As a result, HCD teams build User Personas or design Experience Maps showing experiences and emotions of people going through the process you are trying to improve.

System Thinking uses the Explore phase to analyse the potential elements, connections and directions of the system. It shows you the reasons why a system works in a particular way. In our scenario, system thinking tools could analyze which are the different types of fertilizers that are being produced or used so we could see the main resources required for it. Another way could be to identify the stakeholders producing or using fertilizers, showing the cultural value chain or power relationships between them that have promoted a particular type of fertilizer.

After the initial research, both methods follow different paths to design and understand potential solutions:

HCD: Create

HCD teams focus on building solutions. These will be determined by three factors:

  1. What is desirable for our target group?
  2. What is viable for our organization?
  3. What is technically feasible?

Early-stage prototypes can be made of paper or cards, simple click-dummies or simulated interactions (roleplay). In our case study, this could be differently worded messages to test with farmers, or new channels to reach them, or even a first version of a product addressing a completely different aspect of the fertilization process that the teams have discovered to be relevant during exploring.

System Thinking: Analyze

System Thinking would now analyze potential changes or drivers in the current system to change its function. Teams explore potential connections and directions of the system that could make it work differently and achieve different results and outcomes. Tools used in this phase are network analysis or causal-loop analysis: In our scenario, teams would analyze what would be the selection of fertilizers that could be used to respond to the needs of users. It could mean to analyze which are the links that have not yet formed so that these fertilizers reach the farmers that could use them.

To implement ideas, HCD follows the Validate then Scale approach, while System Thinking focuses on building a robust Theory of Change.

HCD: Validate then Scale

HCD-led teams build several, iterative prototypes and discard all but one via extensive testing. It is of utmost importance to test with real users (not your well-meaning colleagues), and to ask the right questions. You will learn most with open-ended questions and again a lot of observations. After every round of feedback, the team discusses which aspect or design they expect to contribute most to solving the initial challenge or satisfy the prioritised need or pain point. Based on clear indicators, a minimal viable product is defined, built and iteratively improved.

System Thinking: Transformative theory of change

A system thinking perspective puts all the information of what the current situation of the system is, together with the change that the user of the tool aims to achieve, to develop a comprehensive theory of change. A System Thinking approach to the case above would take the system learnings of the fertilizers into action, by providing tools that can support the development of a strategy to change the quantity and quality of fertilizers used in the country. It would take the vision towards operationalization.

HCD and System Thinking tools: Similarities, differences and complementarity

HCD and System Thinking are two methods used in different development projects today that analyze social needs from both a bottom-up and top-down approaches respectively. HCD is a great set of methods to put yourself in the shoes of someone you are trying to support and see the problem or opportunity from his or her point of view. HCD supports you to get into a designer mindset, trying to support them with products or services to do what they want to do.

The tools of System Thinking help you to zoom out and think more about the relation of different mini-universes woven into each other and interacting to produce the reality you are facing – they are great tools e.g. to make sense of different parts of a group of actors, a value chain or production line. System Thinking methods make you think beyond your solution – they pinpoint systemic strengths and weaknesses that might not be in the focus of your target groups.

Human-Centered Design System Thinking
Aim Create products, services, and experiences that improve the lives of people (IDEO). Analyze the big picture, to solve complex problems that are dependent on internal and external factors, and their relationships.
Initial context Product design / Stanford.
Organizational development /MIT.
Phases & main conceptions
  1. Scope the problem
    -> Design Challenge
  2. Explore the problem space
    -> User Personas, Experience Maps etc.
  3. Create Solutions
    -> Prototypes
  4. Validate your hypotheses
    -> Tested Minimal Viable Product
  5. Scale your innovation
    -> Scaling plan
  1. Scope the system
    -> Complex Problem Definition
  2. Explore the system
    -> Network Analysis, Stakeholder Mapping, Material Flow Analysis
  3. Designing alternatives for a different future
  4. Impact Pathways, Scenario-Building
  5. Developing a transformative theory of change
    -> Transformative Theory of Change
When to start When scoping an innovation development process from a bottom-up approach (from the individual’s or organization’s needs) When scoping an innovation development from a top-down approach (from the context’s needs)
Starting resources CGIAR User Research Toolkit

Systems Innovation

Transformative Innovative Resource Lab

FSG System Thinking Toolkit


  1. We refer here to the methodology of Human-Centered Design as promoted by HCD, as per IDEO is “a creative approach to problem-solving that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.” (IDEO FAQ). Other, related approaches are called Design Thinking or User Experience Design. Please refer to IDEO for understanding the (small) differences between these approaches.
  2. We refer to system thinking to the methodology that analyses systems, being defined by Meadows (2008) as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something.” From her definition systems consist of three things: elements, interconnections (the relationships between its elements and a function or purpose of the system. For example, systems can be scoped with different social, ecological, institutional, political, and technological elements.

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