Systems: The Sixth Element of User Experience

In the early 2000s, Jesse James Garrett presented a new framework that became a cornerstone in the user experience (UX) field through his book, “The Elements of User Experience.” This framework outlined five fundamental elements of UX: Strategy, Scope, Structure, Skeleton, and Surface. These elements have been the backbone of my UX practice and inspired me to establish the first user experience consulting firm in Vancouver in 2005. (I still recommend the book to people just starting their UX careers, as it offers an easy-to-understand and robust framework for our work.)

The digital landscape has evolved, however. We have shifted from designing websites with software-like interactions to designing increasingly complex web-based software. Many in the field have adopted the job title Product Designer instead of UX Designer. Along with this shift, we must shift our perspective of what UX (or product design) is responsible for. So, while still incredibly relevant, the original five elements should now be considered in the context of a larger, more complex system. We need to add a “sixth element” of user experience: system.

Understanding the Sixth Element: System

The concept of ‘System’ in UX is derived from Systemic Design and systems thinking, which emphasize understanding the interactions and relationships within larger networks. In UX, this translates to a deeper analysis of how individual features and products integrate and interact within a broader ecosystem. Recognizing this sixth element prompts UX practitioners to think beyond individual user interfaces and consider the entire context in which a product is used.

Examples of UX Systems in Action Today

  1. Design Systems: Companies like Airbnb and Atlassian have implemented robust design systems. These systems provide a cohesive and scalable framework that ensures consistency across all digital properties, enhancing the overall user experience by maintaining familiarity and usability across platforms.
  2. Interoperability: Apple’s ecosystem exemplifies interoperability, where products are designed to work seamlessly together, enhancing user convenience and satisfaction. This approach retains customers within the same “ecosystem” and ensures that each new product enhances the value of others previously purchased.
  3. Seamless transitions and consistent experiences across channels and modes: Companies like Spotify or Netflix support seamless offline listening or watching. Or others like Starbucks, where customers can order and pay online, earn and track rewards, and receive personalized offers, all integrated with their in-store experience.

Broader Systems Implications and Potential UX Responsibilities

Adopting a systemic perspective in UX design extends beyond a product’s immediate functionality and aesthetics. It encompasses broader societal and environmental impacts. For instance:

  • Ecological Impact: beyond the energy use considerations that come from such things as large data centers and streaming services, UX designers could consider things like how to get customers to bring their mugs when ordering through an app, reduce their carbon consumption when planning trips, or how to group orders to reduce packaging, or even ways to reduce food waste when ordering through apps like Door Dash.
  • Social Impact: The rise of social media has brought challenges related to behavioural design and its impact on users, particularly young people. Systemic UX design must address these issues by considering the long-term effects of product features on user behaviour and societal norms.
  • Emerging Technologies: With the advent of generative AI, the role of UX goes far beyond usability. A Systemic UX approach will include trust, ethics, and societal impact. Our UX decisions today will shape user interactions for years, highlighting the importance of a systemic approach that considers all potential consequences.


The addition of ‘System’ as the sixth element of user experience represents a pivotal evolution in the field of UX. This broader perspective is crucial for developing products that are usable, aesthetically pleasing, socially responsible, and sustainable. As we navigate complex technological landscapes, integrating systemic thinking into UX design will be essential for creating genuinely beneficial solutions for users and society.


Related links:

The Elements of User Experience

Systems Thinking + Design = ?