Whole systems design requires that you consider the “whole system” of interconnected elements, including the context and the people, processes, structures, technology and other elements, as well as their patterns of interaction.
Losing sight of the “whole system” will increase the cost of delivering and supporting your solution and will likely impact the business value it provides to your organization. A critical piece of systems thinking is balancing short-term and long-term perspectives – you should design only what is necessary, but need to consider what may be necessary in the future.
||Systems design is the process or “art” of defining the hardware and software architecture, components, modules, interfaces, and data for a computer system to satisfy specified requirements.
The words “art” and “systems theory” are not words that software architects would usually think of as a part of their discipline, however Systems Theory should be considered as an important area of knowledge for architects, since in many ways computer systems design can be considered as the application of systems theory to computing.
This definition of computer systems design shares many elements with the broader landscape of design and the concept of “design as a discipline”.
Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems at all nesting levels in all fields of research. The term does not yet have a well-established, precise meaning, but systems theory can reasonably be considered a specialization of systems thinking; alternatively as a goal output of systems science and systems engineering, with an emphasis on generality useful across a broad range of systems (versus the particular models of individual fields). (Wikipedia 2014)
Design practice follows a methodology and while the practice of design in a computing systems context may follow different methodologies than bricks and mortar architectural design, there are elements of both the “trade” and the persons that practice the trade, that are common. Design practice uses modeling and non-verbal communication media as the language of design and these “graphical” modes of thought are central to designing. Design practice uses synthesis and pattern formation as thinking tools. Different designers construe a task in different ways, which leads them to very different patterns of designing, and yet there are fundamental patterns that all designers follow:
- Design practice usually engages in collaborative (group) work. Design activities are inherently collaborative and engage those being served. In our business, our stakeholders (customers, end users, and budget holders) are engaged from the beginning in our design process.
- Design knowledge emerges from a conscious “not-knowing” and is built through reason, intuition, and imagination as elements of inquiry. This initial state of conscious “not-knowing” allows the architect to consider the whole and not be limited to what might be seen or assumed.
- Design addresses complexity yet strives for simplicity. This is truly an art. Great designers can unravel thorny problems and find solutions that seem easy.
- Design seeks to find the underlying patterns. For example, if designing a telephone system, the designer would look for patterns in how the system might be used. In what order are steps usually done? What are the relationships of different tasks and movements to each other?
- Design composes for sustainability. – Designers must always think about this. Is it designed to last?
Design maintains the whole. As architects, we must first consider the larger whole within which our solution or application must operate, and recognise that parts of a design must sometimes be sub-optimized to serve the whole system and enable its success.
As Donald Knuth once said “Premature optimization is the root of all evil”; in Whole Systems Design, the optimization or isolated design of a single component of the overall system can undermine the effectiveness of system as a whole.