Artefact Creative Lead on Systems Thinking Meets Product (Part 2)

When it comes to product design, how can we be more explicitly outcomes focused? Specifically, how can we use systems thinking to map to outcomes first and then design in reverse from there? This makes you think of the final impact first, even before the product. A lot of this train of thought comes from the non-profit and private sector, and it brings to mind the Cobra Effect.

Not what you expected

In the 19th century, the British colonial army put a bounty on dead cobras to reduce their number. So people began killing cobras, and the cobra population decreased. Suddenly, there was an unexplained uptick in dead cobras brought in to exchange for bounty. Why? People were breeding them, and this ended up increasing the wild cobra population. An outcomes-focused analysis beforehand might have avoided this. 

Now, let’s consider social media. These are large ecosystems that have a multi-layer impact and broad causation. Facebook’s mission is “To give people the power to build community, and bring the world closer together.” I did some research on what kind of impact FB this having on the world today, and what kinds of interventions could be designed to create a different landscape.

Our process followed these steps:

  1. Use systems mapping to understand the status quo
  2. Identify root causes and a deep structure of systems map
  3. Prioritize types of interventions 

Use systems mapping and the status quo

My research looked at the impact of social media on individuals, communities and societies. This outcomes focused outlook occurs at five levels:

  • Policy, enabling environment
  • Organizational
  • Community
  • Interpersonal
  • Personal

Part of my research led me to studies showing that spending more than 10 hours per week on social media increases your chances of being unhappy by 56 percent. From data like this, we created causal loops as part of our systems thinking approach. 

For instance, for individuals, the time spent on platform reduces time spent on real life interaction. This leads to an increase in seeking more online interaction which leads to feelings of depression and loneliness. This, in turn, increases time spent on platform.

Community impact of social media

Next, we derived at an outcomes-focused causal loop at the community level, and it looks like this:

More time spent on platform → increase in personal data collection →  increased use of proxy data for profiling → surface more radical content/groups to keep attention → increase in sensationalist content → more time on platform.

For YouTube, apparently anything that riles you up is when the algorithm loves you most. In my own experience, when I randomly looked for vaccine information (before the crackdown), within a few videos on autoplay I was knee deep in full-blown anti-vaxxer video content. 

Studies have been done on YouTube histories that show how the platform radicalizes people. This isn’t the intent, as it’s not outcomes focused. Still, this is the effect of wanting you to spend more time on the platform. 


Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 3