Systems designers are the people who are responsible for the analysis and design of information systems that are involved in the operation of organizations. They study business, scientific, or engineering data-processing problems, use their knowledge and skills to solve problems, design new solutions, and enable computer technology to meet the individual needs of the organizations. Systems designers may design entirely new information systems, including both hardware and software, or they may add a single new software application to an existing system.
Systems designers have to assume a variety of roles throughout the design process. Among these roles are (1) analyst in order to study the existing system in detail, paying meticulous attention to understanding and distinguishing between users' problems and users' viewpoints, (2) designer in order to propose new procedures for information flow, reporting, and computer processing, (3) technical writer in order to document the results of the design effort, (4) consultant in order to provide advice on options that are available to users and indicate the implications that each of these options has for the performance of the system, (5) team member in order to be able to work with other computer specialists and user representatives toward achieving a common goal, and (6) behavioral scientist in order to design an interface between the system's users and the computer so that the design itself and its method of implementation result in users being satisfied with the final result.
Most systems designers use some variation of a system problem-solving approach called a "systems development life cycle" to build information systems. A systems development life cycle consists of a set of iterative activities and usually incorporates the following general problem-solving steps: planning, analysis, design, creation, test, implementation, and maintenance. The planning step involves identifying the problem, determining the cause, scope, and boundary of the problem, and planning the development strategy and goals. The analysis step involves studying and analyzing the problems, causes, and effects and then identifying and analyzing the requirements that must be fulfilled by any successful solution. Typically, the logical elements of a system are defined during analysis. The design step involves determining how the problem will be solved. The designer's focus shifts from the logical to the physical. Processes are converted to manual procedures or computer programs. Data elements are grouped to form physical data structures, screens, reports, files, and databases. The hardware components that support the programs and the data are defined. The creation step involves coding, debugging, documenting, and testing programs, selecting and ordering new hardware, writing and testing procedures, preparing end-user documentation, initializing databases, and training users. The test step involves ensuring that the system does what it was designed to do. The implementation step involves implementing the physical system into the normal business operation. The maintenance step involves keeping the system functioning at an acceptable level, analyzing the implemented system, refining the design, and implementing improvements to the system. Different support situations can thread back into the previous steps.
The problem-solving steps for design can be simplified to three phases: analysis, design, and development. The systems analysis phase focuses on what the system is required to do. These specifications are then converted to a hierarchy of increasingly detailed components. These components define the data that are required and decompose the processes to be carried out on data to a level at which they can be expressed as instructions for a computer program. The systems development phase consists of writing and testing computer software and of developing data input and output forms and conventions.
Modern information systems are increasingly used by individuals who have little or no previous experience with information technology but who possess a perception about what this technology should accomplish in their professional and personal environments. Systems designers must correctly understand the information needs, the tasks and activities accomplished in meeting the needs, the requirements preferences, and information-use patterns of their end users.
Successful systems designers must possess a wide range of talents. They may work in many different environments or functional units (e.g., finance, marketing) of various organizations, including management and systems consulting firms. Any description of their work is destined to fall short in some way; but there are qualities that most systems designers seem to display.
Above all, designers are problem solvers. They must be able to take a large organizational problem, break down that problem into its component parts, analyze the various aspects of the problem, and then assemble an improved system to solve the problem through skillful application of tools, techniques, and experience.
Systems designers must be experts in the area of information systems and technology. They must have a working knowledge of database management systems, telecommunications and networking, client/server and distributed computing architecture, object technology, rapid application development technology, graphical user interfaces, the Internet, and programming, including operating systems and utilities and application development tools.
Systems designers must be adaptable. No two systems development projects encountered by a system designer are identical, and many organizations have standards that dictate specific approaches, tools, and techniques that must be adhered to when developing a system. Systems designers must be able to communicate, both orally and in writing, and they must relate well to other people over extended periods of time.
Systems designers must also be self-disciplined and self-motivated as individuals. They must also be able to manage and coordinate innumerable project resources, including other people. Systems analysis and design is demanding, but the compensation is that it is an ever-changing and always challenging occupation.
There is no universally accepted way to prepare for a job as a systems designer because the preferences of employers depend on the work to be done. A bachelor's degree in computer science, electrical engineering, or information science is virtually a prerequisite for most employers. For some of the more complex jobs, people who have graduate degrees are preferred. Relevant work experience is also very important. People who are looking for entry-level positions may enhance their employment opportunities by participating in internship or co-op programs offered through their schools.
Davis, William S., and Yen, David C. (1998). Information Systems Consultant's Handbook: Systems Analysis and Design. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Whitten, Jeffrey L., and Bentley, Lonnie D. (1998). Systems Analysis and Design Methods. Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.