Systemic Thinking: The Key to an Impactful UX Strategy

The image is a stylized blue and black illustration depicting a human head profile. Inside the head’s outline, there are three interlocking gears, symbolizing mental processes or thinking.

Systems Thinking is a holistic approach to problem analysis and solving that emphasizes viewing systems as a whole, rather than focusing only on individual parts. In the field of UX research, Systems Thinking can bring many benefits to strategic planning, allowing for a broader and more integrated view of the user ecosystem.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking is an interdisciplinary field that emerged in the 1950s from the work of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. He proposed that systems should be viewed as sets of interrelated elements that interact to form a coherent whole.

Jay Forrester, an MIT engineer, applied these ideas to understand social and management systems. His work led to the development of System Dynamics, a quantitative method for modeling and simulating complex systems. Peter Senge popularized Systems Thinking in organizations through his book “The Fifth Discipline.”

Key principles of Systems Thinking include:

– Holistic thinking: focusing on the whole, not just the parts.
– Interrelationship: all parts affect each other within a system.
– Systemic thinking: identifying patterns and interrelationships.
– Broad perspective: exploring wider connections to understand problems.
– Feedback loops: a system’s outputs affect its inputs, creating loops.

Opposing linear reductionist thinking that isolates and simplifies elements, Systems Thinking integrates multiple perspectives to reveal interactions and patterns.

Applying Systems Thinking in UX Research

The field of UX focuses on understanding and meeting user needs. UX research involves investigating how users interact with products and services to identify pain points in the provided experience.

Traditionally, UX research is conducted with a focus on specific touchpoints between the user and the product, such as a website, app, or isolated function. Research is conducted through methods like usability testing, interviews, and contextual observation.

Systems Thinking brings a broader approach to UX research, positioning product use within a more complex ecosystem and considering its interdependencies.

Ways to apply Systems Thinking:

– Mapping the complete user journey, including stages before and after interaction with the product.
– Analyzing relationships between different parts of the system, such as product, user, tasks, environment, etc.
– Understanding the various stakeholders involved in the ecosystem beyond the direct user.
– Considering the broader social, cultural, and environmental context of product use.
– Exploring feedback cycles and chain effects within the system.
– Thinking from multiple perspectives of users and other actors.

Rather than focusing on isolated problems and solutions, Systems Thinking helps to understand deeper patterns and systemic factors that affect the user experience.

The Role of Systems Thinking in UX Strategic Planning

Strategic planning establishes high-level goals and initiatives to guide UX work within an organization. Systems Thinking can greatly strengthen UX strategy, especially in the following aspects:

Holistic Vision of the User Ecosystem

Mapping and analyzing the broader user ecosystem, including digital and physical channels, devices, interactions with other systems and services. This reveals how the product fits within a larger context.

Understanding Real User Needs

Looking beyond superficial needs and exploring deeper social, emotional, and environmental factors affecting user experiences.

Identifying Patterns and Insights

Noticing patterns of behaviors, recurring problems, and opportunities through analysis of the ecosystem as a whole.

Defining a Guiding Vision

Having a more robust and intuitive future vision guiding the strategy, based on a systemic understanding of user needs.

Planning Systemic Initiatives

Proposing solutions and improvements that impact multiple points of the system, rather than focusing on isolated parts.

Holistic Assessment of the Provided Experience

Measuring the user experience more broadly, considering satisfaction, ease, and flow across multiple channels and contexts.

Strategic Stakeholder Management

Mapping all relevant stakeholders and developing systemic strategies to meet their needs and manage relationships.

Systems Thinking helps transcend a limited view and generate deeper, more impactful strategic insights about the experience an organization provides to its users.

Strategic Planning Process with Systems Thinking

How to concretely integrate Systems Thinking into UX strategic planning? Here’s a possible process in 5 steps:

1. Mapping the User Ecosystem

Create a comprehensive visual representation describing the various elements of the user ecosystem and their interrelations: interaction channels, devices, tasks, activity flows, involved stakeholders, etc.

The mapping should aim to capture the complex web of interconnections in the system, following the vision of Donella Meadows. The focus should not be isolated on parts, but rather on the relationships between the parts and the emerging patterns.

2. Systemic Analysis

The analysis of the mapped ecosystem involves looking at the system through various lenses, with the aim of revealing deep insights about the user experiences. Some important elements of the analysis include:

– Identifying recurring patterns of user behavior and activity flows throughout the system. Noticing where these patterns lead to positive or negative outcomes.
– Exploring in detail the interconnections and interdependencies among the elements. Understanding how the parts influence one another.
– Unraveling where the main points of friction and bottlenecks are that harm the user experience.
– Investigating fundamental systemic causes behind these problem points, instead of superficial symptoms.
– Considering how different stakeholders and actors perceive and interact with the system.
– Identifying levers and points of influence that can change the outcomes of the system as a whole.
– Modeling how changes and interventions in one part of the system provoke effects and responses in other parts.
– Exploring feedback loops, side effects, and unintended consequences of changes in the system.

Deep systemic analysis reveals essential insights for developing a UX strategy guided by a holistic and integrative perspective, aligned with systemic thinking.

3. Defining the Strategic Vision

Define the broad and integrated experience the organization wishes to deliver to users, based on systemic understanding. This vision guides the strategic objectives.

The vision should consider the principles of systemic thinking of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, focusing on the interrelations and interdependencies among the elements of the user ecosystem. The strategic vision should be holistic and integrative.

4. Strategic Objectives

Establish multifaceted strategic objectives to comprehensively improve the user experience, aligned with the systemic vision.

The objectives should aim to optimize the system as a whole, not just isolated parts, following Jay Forrester’s thinking. They should take into account feedback loops and chain side effects that occur in the ecosystem. The objectives aim for sustainable and long-term improvements in the user experience.

5. Systemic Initiatives

Define specific initiatives that impact multiple points of the user ecosystem to fulfill the strategic objectives.

This process demonstrates how Systems Thinking can be practically applied to elevate UX strategic planning to a deeper and more impactful level. The systemic vision guides decisions that will holistically shape the experience provided by the organization.


Systems Thinking brings an expanded and integrated perspective to UX research and strategy, enabling an understanding of users within a complex context of relationships, activity flows, and environmental factors. This approach revolutionizes strategic planning, leading to deeper insights into the real needs of users and systemic solutions with greater transformative capacity.

Organizations that adopt Systems Thinking will be better positioned to thrive in a world where customer experience is increasingly crucial.


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ARNOLD, Ross D.; WADE, Jonathan P. A definition of systems thinking: A systems approach. Procedia Computer Science, v. 44, p. 669–678, 2015.
FORRESTER, Jay Wright. System dynamics — a personal view of the first fifty years. System Dynamics Review: The Journal of the System Dynamics Society, v. 23, n. 2‐3, p. 345–358, 2007.
MEADOWS, Donella H. Thinking in systems: A primer. chelsea green publishing, 2008.

Systems Thinking and its Relevance to Strategic Planning in UX Research was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.