: despite a broad consensus on their importance, applications of systems thinking in policymaking and practice have been limited. This is partly caused by the longstanding practice of developing systems maps and software in the intention of supporting policymakers, but without knowing
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: despite a broad consensus on their importance, applications of systems thinking in policymaking and practice have been limited. This is partly caused by the longstanding practice of developing systems maps and software in the intention of supporting policymakers, but without knowing their needs and practices. Objective
: we aim to ensure the effective use of a systems mapping software by policymakers seeking to understand and manage the complex system around obesity, physical, and mental well-being. Methods
: we performed a usability study with eight policymakers in British Columbia based on a software tool (ActionableSystems
) that supports interactions with a map of obesity. Our tasks examine different aspects of systems thinking (e.g., unintended consequences, loops) at several levels of mastery and cover common policymaking needs (identification, evaluation, understanding). Video recordings provided quantitative usability metrics (correctness, time to completion) individually and for the group, while pre- and post-usability interviews yielded qualitative data for thematic analysis. Results
: users knew the many different factors that contribute to mental and physical well-being in obesity; however, most were only familiar with lower-level systems thinking concepts (e.g., interconnectedness) rather than higher-level ones (e.g., feedback loops). Most struggles happened at the lowest level of the mastery taxonomy, and predominantly on network representation. Although participants completed tasks on loops and multiple pathways mostly correctly, this was at the detriment of spending significant time on these aspects. Results did not depend on the participant, as their experiences with the software were similar. The thematic analysis revealed that policymakers did not have a typical workflow and did not use any special software or tools in their policy work; hence, the integration of a new tool would heavily depend on individual practices. Conclusions
: there is an important discrepancy between what constitutes systems thinking to policymakers and what parts of systems thinking are supported by software. Tools may be more successfully integrated when they include tutorials (e.g., case studies), facilitate access to evidence, and can be linked to a policymaker’s portfolio.