How to analyse a complex local system

Figure 1 – Storey K (2019) Adaptation of Sian O’Gorman’s 2009 visual interpretation of Information Ecologies model by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day, diagram.

Nardi and O’Day’s information ecologies model helps service designers analyse complex local systems.

This post offers an overview of Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day’s (1999) information ecologies model, a theory I have adapted to a service design research method to analyse the complexity of local design contexts. The article explains why the model is useful, breaks down the components, and discusses theoretical aspects, including the scholar’s ideas about how to shift an ecology forward. It wraps up with an overview of other researchers who have also applied the model. If you find inspiration from the authors, please reference and acknowledge their contribution to your thinking. As Bernard of Chartres (12th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (1676) once riffed, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’ (Wikipedia 2022).

Figure 2 – The Royal Mint (2014) Standing on the Shoulder of Giants [photograph], @RoyalMintUK Twitter post, accessed 27 September 2022.

Why is this model helpful to service designers?

I first applied Nardi and O’Day’s model during my PhD research, and since I have used it in my commercial practice. The model improves critical analysis, thought, and reflection on local systems to improve design futures. The model sharpens a designer’s view, offers a structured format to sensemake, and see the hidden aspects of any system.

I value the model for its capacity to surface the interconnected attributes of human relationships, local culture, and social values – all of which permeate the surface of systems or services requiring redesign. I also value the model for its permission to slow down and spend time analysing the characteristics of an environment – fundamental to successful future change. I believe the value of deeper analysis plays with more robust and informed decisions about how, where, and why to invest the limited resources of any project.

I also acknowledge that change-making is imperfect, but with this model, more sustainable approaches and consideration of change’s impact on humanity’s rich diversity are possible. This model supports designers in understanding local environments to create more robust views for longer-term sustainable change.


Nardi and O’Day’s Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart was first introduced as a potential framework for my PhD. The model offers a structured framework for analysing local systems. Its components include people, practices, values and technology, overlaid with consideration of the system diversity, co-evolution, and the role hidden (but key) figures play.

Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart was written in 1999 when anthropologists were moving into the Information Technology (IT) industry in Palo Alto to offer design research services for new technology. Ethnographers adapted their practices, becoming pioneer design researchers who contributed deeper insight into the needs and behaviours of end users (Wasson 2000). Christina Wasson’s (2000) ‘Ethnography in the Field of Design’ provides a fascinating account of ethnographers’ role in Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre’s (PARC) approach to designing the first photocopier. Nardi and O’Day’s theory sits alongside such studies, including several inquiries conducted at the Apple Computer Library and Hewlett-Packard Library of California, which contributed to the development of bibliographic search technologies (Nardi 1998).

I have adapted this model to service design to improve contextual analysis or research conducted in discovery to help designers understand the human needs of the system they design in and with. Mary Jo Bitner described the physical environment of a service’s delivery as a ‘servicescape’ (Bitner 1986, cited in Kimbell 2011), and designers initially focus on their design context to understand the quality and current-state of a service experience before proposing future-state change.

What is an information ecology?

Nardi and O’Day explain that an information ecology is;

composed of people, practices, values and technologies. The characteristics of an information ecology share much with biological ecologies: diversity, locality, systemwide interrelationships, keystone species and co-evolution. What makes information ecologies different is the need to apply human values to the development of the practices and technologies within the ecology. We think of it as using technology with heart (Nardi and O’Day 1999: 211-212).

The focus on human relationships is invaluable to human-centred designers, and the authors focus on human relationships because in local ecologies ‘we are not cogs in sweeping sociological processes. Instead, we are individuals with real relationships to other individuals’ (Nardi and O’Day 1999: 50). As any good designer knows, human relationships matter – and they sit at the heart of most things we do.

What are the characteristics of an information ecology?

In addition to those core elements, the model also considers the following characteristics of any local system;


Information ecologies are complex systems with strong interrelationships and co-dependencies. Whilst these characteristics differ in each scenario; they are similar because they are tightly bound and connected (Nardi and O’Day 1999). When change impacts one element, the entire ecology can feel the shift. Change that is incongruent with a local system can disappear without a trace. Alternatively, change can create devastating impacts possible to avoid with better knowledge of local systems and their nuanced characteristics.


Healthy systems incorporate diverse people and tools as an ongoing principle. The continued health of a local system is maintained by avoiding narrow, fake and brittle monocultures – which thrive in the short term but fail to achieve longevity (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Essential to any system and its long-term survival is its capacity to incorporate change, including different people, ideas, and technologies (Nardi and O’Day 1999).


Healthy ecologies continually co-evolve; they are in constant motion. All environments continue to engage with, integrate and adapt new ideas, and when tools become fixed, it is typical for human expertise and creativity to try and adjust them. For a system to successfully co-evolve, social and technological adjustments are necessary to counter the fluidity and dynamism of change. Restorative measures are also vital to balance human relationships in the context of ongoing system shifts (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

Keystone species

Keystone species are critical members of local systems and crucial to the long-term survival of information ecologies. Nardi and O’Day explain that keystone species are skilled people who support the use and application of local technology; they are translators, facilitators, and teachers, who can mediate and builds bridges that cross boundaries and disciplines. The figures contribute to unofficial roles that often go unrecognised, but when identified, they inform researchers how the local system informally works (Nardi and O’Day 1999:53-54). Nardi and O’Day encourage researchers to spend time identifying and engaging with these people to understand their roles and how their contributions reveal how things get done.


Nardi and O’Day argue that local knowledge is specialised and inaccessible to outsiders; they also believe that people external to a system lack the influence to affect change. They also explain that local networks define the identity and meaning of technologies in how they are adopted, applied, and integrated into local worlds. By including a broad range of local participants in research, designers can access these understandings distributed amongst the collective. To appreciate how new tools can impact and improve local needs. As a design researcher, active engagement in a local setting helps access local knowledge and informs how to design sustainable futures (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

Critical aspects of the theory

Thinkers who encourage critical reflection on the social impact of change have influenced Nardi and O’Day’s theory. Terms such as ‘biological ecologies’, ‘keystone and gardener species’, and concepts of looking into the invisible aspects of a system reflect these guiding forces. These critical aspects are essential to understand the relationships between people, local influence, social meanings and values, and the design of sustainable change – tailored to a local information ecology.

Engaged participation to encourage local change

People have a greater capacity to influence change when they are engaged in a local setting. Nardi and O’Day combined Shakespearean notions of ‘local habitation’ with ideas of biological ecologies to inform the view that people most successfully affect change in local settings like their homes, schools, or offices. Because they have local knowledge, are highly engaged, and possess more significant personal influence (Nardi 1998; Nardi and O’Day 1999). That observation also translates to the power of embedded design research – being in place and designing with local communities always produces better outcomes for making longer-term sustainable change.

Critical reflection on the impact of local change

Nardi and O’Day encourage researchers to critically reflect on the impact of change by engaging in slower, more challenging and reflexive ‘know-how and know-why’ conversations. Asking these questions digs below the surface and informs how change might impact local values, traditions, and rituals (Nardi and O’Day 1999: x). In 1999 when Nardi and O’Day developed the theory, sociologist Jacque Ellul and thinkers Langdon Winner, Ivan Illich and Neil Postman shared a pre-millennium concern for technology’s capacity to wipe out whole cultures and traditions. They feared the rapid pace of technological change and its capacity to replace the richness of diverse cultures with a ‘narrowly scoped, obsessive concern for efficiency’ (Nardi 1998).

Rapid change limits critical thought and reduces a designer’s capacity to understand change’s impact on local ‘aesthetic, moral, and spiritual values’ (Nardi 1998). Designers who employ the information ecologies model as an analytical tool have a better chance of reducing the unintended consequences of future change because they have taken the time to critically consider change’s impact on a system’s human needs.

At a 1998 conference, Nardi reflected that Fran Peavey’s By Life’s Grace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change (1994) influenced their understanding of ‘know-how’ and ‘know-why’ questions were essential to developing insights into local systems. Peavey’s (1994) work shaped the belief that asking deeper questions was vital to knowing peoples ‘values, ideals, dreams and feelings’ and how these connected to personal influence, social values and meanings (Fran Peavey 1994, cited in Nardi 1998). A system’s invisible human values define relationships, beliefs and cultures that underpin local settings – and they are as important for designers to know and understand as an ecology’s visible characteristics.

Biological ecologies, keystone and gardener species

Nardi and O’Day borrow the term ‘biological ecology’ from E.O. Wilson because they observed that ‘some species are more critical to the functioning of the ecology than others, because of the special roles they play’ (Nardi 1998). E.O. Wilson’s work illustrates the devastating impact of eradicating a keystone species from a local environment and the potential to wipe out an entire system.

Field studies show that as biodiversity is reduced, so is the quality of services provided by the ecosystems. Records of stressed ecosystems also demonstrate that the descent can be unpredictably abrupt. As extinction spreads, some of the lost forms prove to be keystone species, whose disappearance brings down other species and triggers a ripple effect through the demographies of the survivors. The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a powerline. It causes lights to go out all over (Wilson 1992, cited in Nardi 1998).

These warnings illustrate the value of designers knowing a system and its nuanced characteristic, including actors and their hidden roles. Specific roles offer vital clues about how things get done, the social practices crucial to local diversity and the adoption of a proposed change. Keystone and gardener species are helpful to researchers because they help make a system’s hidden knowledge and interdependences visible (Nardi and O’Day 1999). The name keystone species is derived from the wedge-shaped stone that sits atop an architectural arch. These stones keep the entire structure together; without them, the arch would collapse (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Keystone species play a role akin to the keystone’s function – they are challenging to see immediately, and their work is done in the background. To find them, a researcher must look carefully to understand their contribution, and it can take extensive work to reveal and understand their functions (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

Gardeners are another helpful species for understanding the inner workings of an ecology. They are characterised by their accountable, reliable, long-term presence and unique and transferrable skills that work across domains (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Gardeners translate, facilitate, bridge worlds, and share knowledge that enriches groups and local practices (Nardi and O’Day 1999). These figures find ways into systems via informal work and, over time, convert their contributions into formal responsibilities. They often position themselves between management and worker figures and are trusted by both groups (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Gardeners are valuable to researchers for their local knowledge, ability to anticipate concerns, and ability to find proactive workarounds. They can also see the benefit and disadvantages of change because they are familiar with the everyday. These domain experts often tinker with tools and technology and have good social skills and a willingness to help (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Nardi and O’Day suggest seeking the figures out and cultivating relationships with them as go-betweens because they improve productivity and contribute to convivial working environments (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

Understanding the invisible space of a local system

Understanding the hidden space of a local system is also of interest to Nardi and O’Day because it is in these places that blind spots form. As discussed, keystone and gardener species offer invaluable insight into a system’s informal functions and people’s unrecognised contributions to an ecology (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Two studies by Nardi and O’Day at the Apple Computer Library and the Hewlett-Packard Library of California demonstrate how these figures can inform the design of more sustainable futures. The pair concluded that librarians were keystone species because they offered hidden value by creating convivial settings, paid particular attention to their customer’s needs, and asked questions that applied local values. Librarians created ‘places where clients felt comfortable and cared for at the same time, they were receiving the benefits of the most advanced information technologies’ (Nardi 1998). In this way, the authors understood the human value offered by librarians and made recommendations to design a new bibliographic search tool that complemented them.

How to shift an information ecology

Nardi and O’Day recommend claiming the middle ground, working from local values, paying attention to meanings, and asking open-ended strategic questions when designing for change.

Claiming the middle ground to see the bigger picture

Nardi and O’Day encouraged researchers to claim a middle ground when analysing the impact of change on local social meaning, values and practices (1999:20-21). This position offers a critical view of a system, its characteristics, meanings and functions (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Researching with representatives across the information ecology provides greater access to knowledge dispersed amongst the collective.

Working from local values and paying attention to local meanings

Engaged participation in a local system also aids designers in understanding and working from local values, and it helps them obtain a closer view of local knowledge to scaffold change. By looking on the ground and at the small, designers can identify footholds for interventions to shift the ecology forwards. Trying to work from external values and forcing them onto a local system is ineffective and reflects a desire to control something that is not understood (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

Nardi and O’Day believe local values shift with time and are challenged and renegotiated by people inside the local system, particularly when new technology is introduced (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Renegotiating values is crucial to designing new futures because only those inside the local system can know, enact, and inform new values (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Researchers can make better choices about future change by understanding local people’s complexity, values, practices and technologies (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

It is also essential to expand thinking beyond a ‘human-machine dyad’ to include invisible system elements, such as human ‘relationships, values and motivations’ (1999:30). Technology is an object used by people and imbued with social meaning. It has social rules attached to it by the cultures that design, create and use it (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Technology can stand in for people, leading to significant social issues if only the needs of dominant groups are considered. Generally, these moves fail because change does not meet more nuanced human needs (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

Strategic open-ended questions

Nardi and O’Day also recommend that researchers ask open-ended strategic questions even if they encroach on taboo topics. Because it is better to ask and address such questions with time to change course than not ask them and fail (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Gathering a range of questions from local people in the system with more profound knowledge is also another way to find the right questions to ask. Again, this relates to distributed knowledge and the difficulty for one person to hold all insights about an environment (Nardi and O’Day 1999).

How has the model been applied?

Nardi and O’Day’s theory inspires contemporary research across various disciplines and practices. In the IT sector, the model has aided the analysis of organisational systems to improve efficiency and reduce costs (Hasenyager 1996), helped conceptualise ‘information space as an ecosystem’ (Davenport and Prusak 1997) and analyse infrastructures and information domains (Star and Ruhleder 1996). Some argue that the information ecologies model has created a ‘new species of IT artifact’ in digital infrastructures (Tilson et al. 2010), and others recognise the model’s value in analysing complex organisational relationships and objects in IT settings (Miyazaki et al. 2012; Wang et al. 2015).

Researchers have even extended the definition of an information ecology to include systems that sit between human and natural environments (Eddy et al. 2014). The model has also supported redesigning digital welfare services and systems (Wang et al. 2015; Melkas 2010, Nazi 2013; Teodoro 2016). Pekkarinen et al. (2020) realised the model’s capacity to reveal the influence of strategy, politics, behaviour, staff, and processes on a care institution’s architectural design (Pekkarinen et al. 2020). With deeper human insight into the systems that the researchers explore, knowledge of the underlying psychological, physical and social components of environments is revealed. The outcomes have inspired some to call for a standalone field of study dedicated to information ecologies because the theory contributes to more sustainable and harmonious system designs – including humans, information communication technologies (ICT) and social environments (Wang et al. 2015). My research applies this model to the service design to produce an end-to-end view of a local information ecology situated in a significant cultural heritage setting. The model informed the development of the Unravel design process that was vital to reveal the complexity of human relationships to a significant place through time. The process helped reveal the evolution of social values in place, the evolution of a unique bohemian artisan community, and produced a bedrock of social history knowledge to redesign a visitor experience to keep the community’s heritage alive. I recommend designers consider how to apply the model to their work in the early stages of a project and consider how they might adapt its core elements, characteristics and ideas to improve the quality, longevity and sustainability of their designs.


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