What is Systems Design? How to Surface Opportunities for Change

Melanie Bell-Mayeda

The disposable cup could use a redesign. A new reusable solution could save billions of pounds of trash from entering our oceans and landfills. But this simple product is deeply embedded into the daily operations of millions of coffee shops, fast food restaurants and businesses around the world. Where would you start? It feels a bit overwhelming, right?

These kinds of systems design challenges are the focus of Melanie Bell-Mayeda’s work at IDEO. As a partner and managing director, she has worked in systems design for 20+ years. In this conversation, she shares her approach to mapping complex systems, how to identify the layers of a system in order to spot opportunities for change, and ways to manage bias in systems design.

By the way, that disposable cup challenge? It’s a real project. Get inspired by the insights surfaced in the NextGen Cup pilot.

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What is systems design?

Systems, like healthcare and cities, are big, multifaceted, dynamic things built for a purpose. They span several services and products working together in concert. Some systems benefit society, but some can lead to harm too. Melanie cites writer Donella Meadows, who describes systems as made up of structures (institutions), relationships (stakeholders and power dynamics), and paradigms (culture and mindsets). 

Mapping systems is a starting point to learn how to think about systems in order to spot opportunities for change. We hope that bringing more awareness to the process of designing systems encourages people to be more intentional about creating equitable ones and dismantling harmful ones.

Melanie describes a systems design project as having these three elements:

1. Complexity

Systems don’t have one owner, and they’re dynamic and ever-evolving. Contrast this with an organizational change project, where the organization has a CEO and board.

2. Longer time horizon

Systems designers often do their work over 2-4 years, with a time horizon of 5-7 years to see the impact of that work. There are multiple points of intervention in a systems project. “Systems are the work of generations,” Melanie says. “You have to think in broad swaths of time to make an impact.”

3. Partners

To do systems work, Melanie says you have to partner with researchers, corporations, small businesses, communities and more. Explore what influence partners should and do have and how you can amplify their lived experience. “Communities are a critical part of any systems design—who lives and works there and how you actually incorporate them into the solutioning process.”

Thinking in layers to identify the elements of a system

Melanie likes to explore a system in layers to get an understanding of the major elements in play. The four layers of a system she uses as a starting point in her work are people, policy, market-based solutions, and narrative (a structure that maps to the Pathetic Dot Theory by Lawrence Lessig).

People — Who are the people and stakeholders impacted by the system? Who has or should have influence? 

Policy — What laws and regulations might impact this system? Policy affects large swaths of the community, but often doesn’t reach everyone equally.

Market-based Solutions — Thinking about people’s needs in the system, what solutions are available? Consider two categories: 1) Market-based solutions that are currently common in the system. 2) Emerging, new or innovative offers including those that might not yet exist.

Narrative — What stories do we tell ourselves about the current system? “It’s the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others that set the tone and norms for how we operate,” Melanie says. In the childcare system, for example, there’s a cultural narrative that childcare is women’s work. Dismantling that idea would allow for new solutions including men.

Melanie Bell-Mayeda

You can expand on these layers to get more detailed within each, as her team did with a project for Upstream, an organization focused on expanding women’s access to birth control to reduce the rate of unplanned pregnancies. Their model was working with health systems and clinics to train doctors and providers to provide same-day long-acting birth control. They were growing state by state, but wanted to scale up faster. The IDEO team worked with them to explore the layers of the reproductive health system with the goal of identifying where access could be scaled up.

The people impacted by the system are primarily women (anyone whose body can produce a child) and all the contexts in which they live: If they’re parents yet or not, how they access doctors, their income level, etc.

Looking at the policy layer, what’s allowed legally as far as access to birth control varies by state. In some places, nurse practitioners in a pharmacy can provide medical care and prescribe birth control, but that’s not true everywhere. 

For market-based solutions, birth control products available currently include birth control pills, IUDs and other kinds of contraceptives. Diving deeper into this layer, the team looked at place and funding. Consumers could go to several places to find these products: doctors, medical centers, clinics, pharmacies, direct-to-consumer sales. As far as funding for products, birth control is sometimes covered by Medicaid or health plans, Planned Parenthood, or paid out-of-pocket by the consumer. 

When the team explored the narrative layer of the reproductive healthcare system, they focused on one story that helped build empathy and understanding for the women they were trying to serve: women often don’t believe they will get pregnant, so it feels unnecessary for them to choose a birth control option that may come with unwanted side effects. Evaluating solutions in this context helped the team think differently about when and how to approach women with options.

Mapping systems to surface opportunities for design

“To begin to solve for it, you need to be able to see it,” Melanie says of the importance of creating a map of your system. The layers exercise can help you identify the most important pieces of your system and which elements you want to show on your system map. Often, a system is represented as nodes with interconnected lines, like this example of the care system from IDEO’s work with Pivotal Ventures.

The Care System

While it may look simple, “you could not imagine how many times we drew this map,” Melanie says. The mapping exercise identified starting points where the team could dig deeper in search of potential solutions, as well as establishing a common understanding of the system across the team and their stakeholders. 

With Pivotal, their goal was to better understand the state of caregiving in America. So much of care—for children, aging parents, and households—is invisible labor. “We needed to make the invisible visible in order to understand how we solve for this in the context of modern families,” Melanie explains. Once your system map is in place, journey mapping can help you follow one group through the entire system and build empathy for their needs. 

As you begin filling in the pieces of your system through the layers exercise and building your system map, Melanie prompts you to look for three things: 

  • Where are there big white space opportunities? 
  • Where are there very broken parts of the system today?
  • Where are there interesting overlaps where you can start to see solutions potentially emerge?


“To begin to solve for it, you need to be able to see it.”
Melanie Bell-Mayeda


With Pivotal, the map helped the team begin to see parts of the existing care system that aren’t working for families today, like school hours not matching working hours and the lack of solutions for caring for aging parents. In the Upstream example, the team began to converge on the pharmacy as a flashpoint, or area of overlap. They realized most people live within five blocks of a pharmacy, so it’s accessible. Many pharmacies are also starting to differentiate by providing medical care, and they take cash, check Medicaid, and health insurance. Pharmacists know more about drugs than almost anyone else in the medical system. The pharmacy held so many points of intersection between the layers of the system that it felt like an exciting new place to design a solution.


Managing bias in systems design

“Acknowledge that you have biases that you might not be aware of,” Melanie says of the best place to start. “And create the space to surface that bias.” Then be intentional about engaging with your biases instead of getting defensive. 

We all bring biases into our work. Designers seek solutions to make people’s lives better, but if we don’t engage around our biases, we limit the impact of our work and at worse create harm.

At IDEO, Melanie and her team have a moment before kicking off a systems design project where they sit together, bring each of their lived experiences into the room, and think about what influence that might have over the work that they’re about to do.

Here’s how you can replicate her team’s process:

Step 1

Ask yourself and your team a few questions to build awareness of the assumptions you’re making as you map out the system you hope to design. Build out more questions specific to the system you’re designing for.

  • What comes to mind when you think about this particular context or working with this community?
  • Who comes to mind as groups, individuals, or images of folx in this community?
  • What are some feelings that come up for you as we head into this work?

(These questions are part of an activity designed by IDEO to help teams build awareness around identity, values, emotions, biases, and assumptions amongst the IDEO project team, our clients, and our users. The activity was originally inspired by the Liberatory Design Cards designed by the Stanford d.School’s K12 Labs and The National Equity Project.)

Step 2

As you work to become aware of your biases, call them out so you can see them more objectively. Are they helpful, or not? For example, your biases may be helpful if they enable you to more closely empathize with the experience of the community you’re designing for.

Step 3

If they're not helpful, how might you get more informed to learn how to navigate them? How might you design with people that can help you to step into their spaces more clearly?


“Acknowledge that you have biases that you might not be aware of, and create the space to surface that bias.”
Melanie Bell-Mayeda


“If you can see someone stepping in their bias or operating in their bias,” Melanie explains, “calling in and holding able, which we learned from a group called DEI Works, is this idea that you can acknowledge that it's happening and also recognize that that person is able to work through it in service of a better outcome.”

Systems design reading for inspiration

To further your exploration into systems design, Melanie recommends reading Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown and work by writer Donella Meadows. She’s inspired by Bloomberg and Harvard’s new Center for Cities initiative to support mayors. 

Systems design is complex and time consuming, but what excites Melanie is that “if systems can be designed, they can also be redesigned.” If you had all the time and resources you needed, what system would you redesign?

Learn how to design moments that people will remember in our online course, Human-Centered Service Design. 

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