Initiated as a research topic for adapting the insights of systems and complexity theory into user interface design, the Organization Process Interface visualizes the flow and effect of feedback in the operations of an organization as it undertakes its decision making over time.
Unlike conventional representations, the emphasis of this work is to map the arc of processes in the past, present, and into the future as feedback loops, creating an overt cue that events for participants don’t occur in a vacuum, but are rather part of a larger whole.
The presented example demonstrates how such an interface could be utilized, visualizing the process flow of curriculum approval at Emily Carr University, with multiple proposals passing through their requisite stages, being accepted or rejected before taking effect.
For the the full story on this project continue reading here or on Medium.
Adapting the Lessons of Systems Theory into UI Design
“What characteristics make a system adaptive to change? In the age of constant disruption, how do we build better shock absorbers for ourselves, our communities, companies, economies, societies, and the planet?”
That’s one of the provocative prompts authors Andrew Zolli and Anne Marie Healy gave in their 2012 work on resilience, citing examples on the subject ranging from trauma recovery, to market inflation and disaster response. While their writing provides a wide survey of the subject, it made me wonder if it was possible to harness their insights and those of other experts to create tools that might be utilized on a more everyday basis.
To even begin considering such a prospect, it was first necessary to grasp the nature of complex systems, and be able to form a coherent picture to use as a reference, especially if attempting to contend with the dynamics of social organizations.
To tackle such a problem, I turned to the work of Dr Peter T. Coleman of Columbia University, who over the course of two decades with a mixed team of social psychologists, physicists, and complexity scientists sought to translate the findings of complexity theory into the realm of social sciences, applying insights to the resolution of intractable conflicts.
In his writing on the subject Dr. Coleman set a framework for their methodology, which was used to examine the civil war in Mozambique in the early 90’s. He defined the first step in harnessing complexity in part as identifying hubs, loops, and the energy in a system, which his team had employed to this effect for their study.
While functional for those familiar with the subject matter, this method of conveying information about systems leaves much to be desired from a user experience perspective.
Seeing this as an opportunity to incorporate the value of design into something truly important, I looked for other examples of conveying complex subject matter, which led me to the revelations of the Panama Papers.
To illustrate the interconnectedness and complexity of their findings, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists produced a website that allows users to explore the web of the story in great detail, without visually overwhelming its readers.
While these two examples present the networked nature of systems, systems in reality operate in a multitude of ways. One such way, which can be easily under-emphasized, is temporally, functioning through time.
When considering time in systems, it is essential to identify how it relates to feedback. In systems terminology, this is referred to as feedback loop delays, which define the gap in time between an initiating action and its experienced outcome (ordering, then receiving a cup of coffee for example). Too long of a delay means a system isn’t responsive enough, while too short might pre-empt our ability to respond.
Looking for a simple example of how to demonstrate feedback loop delays, I opted for familiar territory in visualizing the experience of curriculum changes at my university.
Starting with scrap material, I visualized the flows of information that directed curriculum change and the points at which it was experienced by different people into something that vaguely resembled a Gantt chart with string connections.
Wanting to be clearer about the passage of time and the movement of information, I created a video prototype to emphasize the window of time in which students experienced curriculum ( the red fields) in relation to moving feedback that’s
influencing each successive students’ experience.
While this was well and good for demonstrating an idea, to make something truly useful it needed to be connected to real data.
That is when I began explore the possibility of visualizing the background process of curriculum development,which has an established paper trail and officiated methodology within the university.
I mapped out its process flow through its various stages on a timeline using geometric shapes, drawing green or red connections between them to delineate the progression or stalling of individual proposals of curriculum change that must be reviewed and approved within various organizational bodies. As meetings of theses stages are dispersed in limited numbers throughout an annual schedule, failure to progress by a certain time can mean slipping into the following year, or congesting with other proposals vying for attention.
Clicking on an stage of a proposal brings up a detailed view of the stages, providing key information as to what takes place and who is involved in the deliberation of any decisions.
The intention behind this prototype became providing users with a macro and micro view of the system in which they participate. Allowing for the emphasis to be directed towards the aspects which a user requires, while framing their presence and influence within a larger coherent whole of events.
While this work has progressed into something tangible, its true test will be reproducing variants for different contexts, exploring how layers of knowledge can be applied to better aide perspective, and by extension, the responsiveness and resilience of organizations.
This project was carried out for the Interaction Design undergraduate program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Instructors: Haig Armen, Thomas Girard, and Stevie Thuy Anh Nguyen.