Essays & Articles


Systems Thinking: A Product Is More Than the Product

Note: This was published as part of my bi-monthly column in the ACM CHI magazine, Interactions, volume 16, issue 5. I urge you to read the entire magazine — subscribe. It’s a very important source of design information. See their website at (ACM is the professional society for computer science. CHI = Computer-Human Interaction, but better thought of as the society for Interaction Design.)

A product is actually a service. Although the designer, manufacturer, distributor, and seller may think it is a product, to the buyer, it offers a valuable service. The easiest example is the automatic teller machine (ATM), or as many people think of it, a cash dispenser. To the company that manufactures it as well as to the bank that purchases it, the ATM is a product. But to the customer, the ATM provides a service. In similar fashion, although a camera is thought of as a product, its real value is the service it offers to its owner: Cameras provide memories. Similarly, music players provide a service: the enjoyment of listening. Cell phones offer communication, interaction, and other pleasures.

In reality a product is all about the experience. It is about discovery, purchase, anticipation, opening the package, the very first usage. It is also about continued usage, learning, the need for assistance, updating, maintenance, supplies, and eventual renewal in the form of disposal or exchange. Most companies treat every stage as a different process, done by a different division of the company: R&D, manufacturing, packaging, sales, and then as a necessary afterthought, service. As a result there is seldom any coherence. Instead, there are contradictions. If you think of the product as a service, then the separate parts make no sense–the point of a product is to offer great experiences to its owner, which means that it offers a service. And that experience, that service, is the result of the coherence of the parts. The real value of a product consists of far more than the product’s components.

A successful product or service has to navigate a complex terrain of hurdles, constraints, technologies, and opportunities. There are myriad market forces, fundamental needs, competitive strategies, core competencies, and market adoption forces. And the product must deliver its promises, not only functioning well, but also providing pleasure in the interaction. This list only scratches the surface. I have deliberately left out numerous critical issues that determine a product’s viability and I am certain to have unwittingly left out even more.

How to negotiate this thicket of issues is the subject of many books and specialized seminars. Not all companies manage, and even those that do face occasional failures. To me, however, the most important aspect for the delivery of a cohesive experience is systems thinking. It is amazing how few companies understand and practice this. Let me give some examples.

There are many great digital cameras available today. Most are attractive and take good pictures; some are even relatively easy to use. But many camera companies wrongly believe that the product is all there is to the camera. The product is more than the product. I have seen the initial enthusiasm for wonderful cameras destroyed because of the many hurdles to first use. Beautiful cameras are packaged in nondescript, hermetically sealed boxes. Opening the box for the first time is an operation fit for a hammer and saw (sometimes literally), with occasional damage to one’s body or the product in the process. The manual for one of my digital appliances still bears bloodstains. And even when the product is finally extracted from the box–with its intimidating installation discs, legal warnings, and manuals–it cannot be used until a lengthy battery-charging procedure is complete. The initial excitement falls prey to lengthy, complex manuals in umpteen languages, which start not with a joyful opening statement, but with lengthy legal warnings about dangers and misuse. Amazing negligence lurks in the hearts of companies.

Not all companies are so clueless. There are numerous success stories. For products we have the BMW Mini Cooper, the ubiquitous iPod, and Amazon’s Kindle. For websites there is a long list of excellent services coupled with great experience and underlying smooth, efficient operations that instantly deliver upon their promises: Amazon, eBay, FedEx, Kayak, UPS, and Netflix. For pure services we have luxury hotels and low-cost business hotels as well as stores such as IKEA. Even Domino’s Pizza joins the list: Order a pizza by telephone and then you can follow its progress on the website. You’ll get not only an estimated wait time, but also the name of the pizza maker and then the name of the delivery person. “I think I get more enjoyment out of watching pizza tracker than eating the pizza,” said one blogger. Systems thinking transforms the antagonizing wait for delivery of the food into an enjoyable, personalized experience. In all of these instances, the company has thought through the entire experience, ensuring that all the parts are coherent, consistent, and pleasurable.

The iPod story has been told many times, but most of the storytellers miss the point. The iPod is a story of systems thinking, so let me repeat the essence for emphasis. It is not about the iPod; it is about the system. Apple was the first company to license music for downloading. It provides a simple, easy to understand pricing scheme. It has a first-class website that is not only easy to use but fun as well. The purchase, downloading the song to the computer and thence to the iPod are all handled well and effortlessly. And the iPod is indeed well designed, well thought out, a pleasure to look at, to touch and hold, and to use. Then there is the Digital Rights Management system, invisible to the user, but that both satisfies legal issues and locks the customer into lifelong servitude to Apple (this part of the system is undergoing debate and change). There is also the huge number of third-party add-ons that help increase the power and pleasure of the unit while bringing a very large, high-margin income to Apple for licensing and royalties. Finally, the “Genius Bar” of experts offering service advice freely to Apple customers who visit the Apple stores transforms the usual unpleasant service experience into a pleasant exploration and learning experience. There are other excellent music players. No one seems to understand the systems thinking that has made Apple so successful.

Amazon’s Kindle is my latest example of superb systems thinking. This is’s ePaper-based book reader. Now, there are competing products on the market which offer superior features. Amazon wins, however, because of its systems thinking. No computer is necessary for most transactions. When the Kindle arrives, it is preloaded with the books that were ordered. Moreover, it can work instantly. Even more important, Amazon thought through the entire system, from discovering a book to loading it onto the Kindle. Users can order new items from the Kindle itself and receive them on the device within roughly a minute. Files in a variety of formats can simply be emailed to the Kindle, for each device comes with its own, unique email address. Again, the true beauty of the Kindle is that it is a system. Like the iPod, the Kindle itself is well designed, attractive, lightweight, and easy to use. Try as I might, I can think of only a few tweaks I would make to the interaction.

In their recent book, de Souza and Leitão show how the communication approach of “semiotic engineering” can help ensure consistency and coherence [1]. They critique the HCI community (and my past work) for optimizing the individual components at the expense of the whole. They are correct. A systems analysis goes beyond the design of individual screens or actions. It considers the entire experience from start to finish: thought through action through reflection. To make this a whole, seamless, coherent experience requires considering each action, each system response, each message–whether verbal or visual, silent or audible, visceral or behavioral, haptic or happenstance–all as part of the whole. Make sure that each message is consistent with the others in tone, voice, locus, and message. All steps must be readily accommodated, with the system always anticipating and ready for whichever choice the person makes. This is what it means to be a system: to think of everything.

Systems thinking, some people say, is all very fine for luxury goods and services, but far too costly for the everyday items. Look at your examples–iPod, Mini Cooper, and Kindle–lower-priced, smaller-margin goods can’t do that! This argument is false, for the success is not due to expensive services; it is due to thoughtful analysis and provision of consistent coherent services. Whether it is a bargain airline (Southwest Air), bargain food (McDonald’s), bargain car rentals (Enterprise), or bargain hotels (Tata’s Ginger hotels in India), all it takes is the right point of view.

No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service–from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly. That’s systems thinking.

About the Author

Don Norman wears many hats, including cofounder of the Nielsen Norman group and visiting professor at KAIST (South Korea), and author. His latest book is Living with Complexity. He lives at


[1] De Souza, C.S., and Leitão, C.F. (2009). “Semiotic Engineering Methods for Scientific Research in HCI.”