Podcast 🎧 & blog: Designing for Complex Systems

06.04.2022 | Federico Plantera


Organizing and presenting information, as well as finding it when citizens need, must be up there in governments’ agendas. Not only because we should be able to access it in the most effective and efficient way, but also because the systems where this is stored and listed are often very complex. Perhaps overly complex?

Vitaly Friedman is an author, UX designer, and one of the keynote speakers of this year’s e-Governance Conference. In this episode, we explore how design and clear principles can help public authorities ease citizens’ journey through the vast and deep sea of public data and information.


Design and complex systems in the information age

It is not by chance that the era we live in has been defined as “the information age”. Information is everywhere, ubiquitous, overflowing from every corner and source upon us. Social networks, media outlets, institutions. While in other podcast episodes we focused on screening and critically assessing the information we see, or how to protect us from threats of its misuse, this time we shift to another angle.

Designing for complex systems, first and foremost, requires us to define the meaning of complexity. One the one hand, “It could be the sheer amount of information that needs to be consumed, organized, presented in some way. But also, somebody has to produce this information, publish, edit it. This constitutes another layer of complexity, down to the different rules and guidelines these different actors bear in mind in their operations,” Friedman begins with.


The need to navigate information intuitively and effectively

“When I speak about complexity, one important thing to understand is that things might be inherently complex – due to their nature, the expertise and data required to produce information. But they don’t have to be like that for end users,” Friedman says. “What do I need to make it extremely crystal clear how to navigate from one page to the next?”

When organizing and presenting a huge amount of information, navigation is always very important. The end goal is to “Reduce the level of uncertainty that you often get, when you end up working with such complex systems, into something that is just obvious to everyone. And that usually means making things as obvious as they can be,” Friedman explains.

For example, one common mistake on this issue that organizations make – large or small, regardless – is to replicate real-life hierarchies in the online world. “We always tend to reflect organizational hierarchies and structures in the way we organize our projects, and our websites, and our digital presence. Some institutions are moving towards more user-centric design in presenting relevant information, but others don’t tap into the dynamism digital tools give us in that sense,” Friedman says.


How we organize websites isn’t really working – design to the rescue

Ultimately, reducing the complexity of these systems, particularly in the eyes of end users, is not just about simplifying to the bone the information that is presented. Rather, it is down to how this is displayed, how easy it is to find it, and reduce the fragmentation of pages and processes that finally lead citizens to what they are looking for.

“I think one of the critical parts is how do we even display information. Taking the ‘search’ tool as an example, we are just used to the fact that we end up with lists of search results – we click on those links, and hopefully find the information we need. But why do we get accommodated with that? Shouldn’t we just get answers, right away, to all our questions?”

According to Friedman, “If we dedicate enough time to understand what people want, and help them get there, we allow citizens to navigate that complexity more comfortably. We need a governance strategy for how we publish, archive, and even delete pages and search results. Our task, from the perspective of public organizations, is to do our job well for citizens,” Friedman concludes. Which means making information intuitive and quick to access, as well as services easier to consume.


Interested in more? Join the e-Governance Conference on May 10-12, 2022, to get the best insights and lessons learnt about how digital governments cope with times of crisis, and create seamless online services to make citizens’ life easier – even in an emergency.