Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Your constantly-updated definition of Complex Socio-Technical Systems and collection of videos and articles

What are Complex Socio-Technical Systems?

Complex socio-technical systems are intricate societal and global problems: challenges where designers strive to define human problems, understand the far-reaching implications of these and address them carefully. Designers try incremental steps toward sustainable solutions as they are hard to approach and understand.

“The designer simply cannot predict the problems people will have, the misinterpretations that will arise, and the errors that will get made.”

— Don Norman, Founder of UX (from The Design of Everyday Things)

See why complex socio-technical systems can be wickedly intricate but not hopelessly impossible.

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The World Is Complex, the Human World Even More So

Cognitive science and user experience expert Don Norman differentiates complex socio-technical systems from wicked problems. Although the two are essentially the same, Norman states the latter term is overused and has too many different meanings. Nevertheless, wicked problems are:

  • Difficult to define.

  • Complex systems.

  • Difficult to know how to approach.

  • Difficult to know whether a solution has worked.

Many global problems have these qualities. They’re too massive and intricate to “solve” — take world peace as an example. But more solvable-looking problems (e.g., global warming) also have hordes of complex, intertwined issues within them. Often, these smaller issues are entangled with political agendas and various factors that make them hard to understand let alone solve. What appears to be a simple approach is often an insignificant part of a very large problem. For example a socio-technical system could be (e.g.) healthcare-related, and some fantastically straightforward “good idea” might spring to mind. But then, it’s almost certain that many others (including experts) have already tried and discovered how that “good idea” can’t work.

Much of the trouble with considering such systems is because of the human brain. It’s used to seeing direct results in causal or cause-effect chains; “If I do X, Y happens.” Evolutionarily, we humans are designed to understand simple causes and immediate results: We throw a rock, and we see it fall to the ground. On the other hand, complex socio-technical systems such as climate change are hard to understand because the human mind is not designed to understand something that complex. In design, we’re used to having the convenience of getting feedback through, for example, usability testing. But the human brain can’t understand the complexities of world systems. Take recycling, for example; many people have grown used to considering it more in terms of collective responsibility. However, we’re not used to thinking on a grander scale in terms of the many — often invisible — ways our environment reacts to the effects of our actions, purchasing choices and habits. Complex socio-technical systems are difficult to analyze because:

  • Many systems have several feedback loops. When you do something, result A might not appear but instead impact something else you can’t perceive (result B) and then affect other things. Only when a threshold is crossed might the first result you notice appear (e.g., result J).

  • There could be a long delay between triggering actions and the first noticeable results. Sometimes, so much time might pass that causes are only traceable through deep investigation and systems analysis.

This complexity is why Norman points the way to 21st century design and humanity-centered design. When we’re facing highly involved, massively-scaled human problems enmeshed in complex systems, we can’t use the same approach we might take for, say, an app (e.g., using design thinking alone).

Trash littered on a beach.

How to Handle Complex Socio-Technical Systems

We’ll never be able to solve some problems plaguing our world. How could we even tell if world peace occurred, for example? Still, we can do something to at least improve matters from one situation/project to the next and improve the world in little sections. Namely, we can leverage humanity-centered design to:

  • Use people-centered design to tap a population’s insights and keep them invested.

  • Solve the right problem, after in-depth consideration and (e.g.) using the 5 Whys method.

  • See everything as a system, and use systems thinking.

  • Take small and simple steps towards sustainable solutions. Specifically, use muddling through or incrementalism:

  • Big problems demand big solutions, but big solutions are too expensive, disruptive and prone to failure. Be pragmatic and “go small."

  • Once you understand the people you want to help, their situation’s realities and what their environment lets them do, wait for an opportunity to do something small but helpful. Then, see if it works well enough to either repeat/duplicate or improve. If it fails, it’s still small enough that it won’t spell disaster. Learn from it and use that knowledge to shape something that will work.

  • Small steps will also be more likely to win the community’s support. They happen quickly enough for people to see these aren’t hollow promises, and can even provide life-saving results.

  • Success breeds success. If a small step leads to more victories, you’ll win even more community support.

  • Small steps taken at the right time can lead to the “best solution possible” at any future point — in contrast to a “big fix” taking (e.g.) 10 years, when the whole situation, including the nature of the problem will have changed.

Overall, be sure to work with the community leaders every step of the way.

The four principles of Human-Centered Design are People-Centered, Solve the Right Problem, Everything is a System, and Small & Simple Interventions.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Learn More about Complex Socio-Technical Systems

If you want to learn more about complex socio-technical systems and how you can help solve the world’s biggest problems using your design tools and knowledge, take our courses:

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

Read more articles and essays by Don Norman on

Read this Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation article for in-depth views of complex socio-technical systems

The principal of Fit Associates shares further, fascinating insights in Notes on sociotechnical systems design

Literature on Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Here’s the entire UX literature on Complex Socio-Technical Systems by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Complex Socio-Technical Systems

Take a deep dive into Complex Socio-Technical Systems with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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