Book Cover

Hugh Dubberly Interview
Systems Design


What is systems design?

Systems design is simply the design of systems. It implies a systematic and rigorous approach to design—an approach demanded by the scale and complexity of many systems problems.

Where did systems design come from?

Systems design first appeared shortly before World War II as engineers grappled with complex communications and control problems. They formalized their work in the new disciplines of information theory, operations research, and cybernetics. In the 1960s, members of the design methods movement (especially Horst Rittel and others at Ulm and Berkeley) transferred this knowledge to the design world. Systems design continues to flourish at schools interested in design planning and within the world of computer science. Among its most important legacies is a research field known as design rationale, which concerns systems for making and documenting design decisions.

What can interaction designers learn from systems design?

Today, ideas from design methods and systems design may be more relevant to designers than ever before—as more and more designers collaborate on designing software and complex information spaces. Frameworks suggested by systems design are especially useful in modeling interaction and conversation. They are also useful in modeling the design process itself.

What is the most important thing to be aware of in systems design?

A systems approach to design asks:

  • For this situation, what is the system?
  • What is the environment?
  • What goal does the system have in relation to its environment?
  • What is the feedback loop by which the system corrects its actions?
  • How does the system measure whether it has achieved its goal?
  • Who defines the system, environment, goal, etc.—and monitors it?
  • What resources does the system have for maintaining the relationship it desires?
  • Are its resources sufficient to meet its purpose?


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Hugh Dubberly is founder and principal at Dubberly Design Office (DDO), an interaction design consultancy in San Francisco. Before forming DDO, he served as vice president for design at AOL/Netscape and as creative director at Apple Computer, Inc. He has also taught at San Jose State University and Stanford University.


Table of Contents

Read an excerpt "The Elements of Interaction Design" in UXmatters

Marc Rettig interview excerpt on Interaction Design's History and Future

Larry Tesler interview excerpt on The Laws of Interaction Design

Brenda Laurel interview excerpt on Design Research

Robert Reimann interview excerpt on Personas

Luke Wroblewski interview excerpt on Visual Interaction Design

Shelley Evenson interview excerpt on Service Design

Carl DiSalvo interview excerpt on Designing for Robots

Adam Greenfield interview excerpt on Everyware