The User-System Experience (USE) framework

The User-System Experience (USE) framework

A Design Framework for Digital User Experience

The User-System Experience (USE) framework was created by Steve Land to encapsulate, at a glance, all of the forces and factors that have an impact on a designed experience encompassing the interactions between a system and its users. This framework comes from years of experience leading the design, development, production, and rollout of software and web application architecture and user interaction design.



Why Use USE?

User experience is more than a graphical or mechanical user interface, or the combination of the two. User experience should take into account the existing behaviors and motivations of the users, the goals of the system owners, and the surrounding context and conventions that influence the experience.

As an analogy, consider the experience of flying on a commercial airline. The most obvious touchpoint between customers and an airline is the sum total experience boarding an airplane, riding from point A to point B, interacting with the flight attendants, and arriving at your destination. Airline customers don’t need to think much about fuel costs, logistics, regulations, or thousands of other factors that matter a lot to that airline.

To the customer of an airline, the experience begins with purchasing the ticket and ends with transport from the airport. Other features of the entire air traffic system are externalities.

So, let’s design the ideal user experience for a passenger of a commercial airline, focusing entirely on the user. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s focus on one user persona: the experienced business traveler.

We would like our prototypical business traveler to have extremely comfortable seats. Ample room to work would be ideal, perhaps a desk. Maybe some office supplies in case she needs them. High speed internet access. Great food with ample selections from which to choose. Quick boarding and departure with minimal delays.

No doubt, imagining the ideal flight experience for a business traveler in a vacuum would produce something resembling the experience that the US President would have while flying on Air Force One: an experience optimized to get important work done while airborne.

The problem is, the ideal experience for any typical commercial airline business traveler is constrained at every turn. The airline has to make money, which means that they have to balance comfort with density of passengers in context of a competitive marketplace in which brokers provide side-by-side offers for similar flights from different airlines. The infrastructure required for high speed internet at thirty thousand feet is not free. In-flight meals are limited by storage space, available cooking methods, and passenger volume. US flights require departing passengers to be subjected to detailed belt buckling instructions. The amount of air traffic at any moment has an impact on the ability of flights to depart. Different cultures even in the US have different levels of patience with waiting, personal space, and other factors.

So, if one were to realistically design a new user experience for airline travel, the entire end to end system must at least be taken into account. Anything that would impact the experience should be considered, either as a requirement or constraint. If something can improve the experience, and it is possible to change that aspect of the system—even if it’s not directly visible during the direct interaction with the system—it should be considered fair game for a UX designer to challenge. A user experience (UX) designed in a vacuum might be found to be unfeasible, expensive, impractical, unmaintainable, or not possible to implement within the resource, time, or budget constraints of a project.

For the users of digital devices, the user interface (UI) is more than just the most apparent manifestation of a much bigger system, the interface is the system. When a graphic designer is asked to create icons representing a computer to a user, they don’t reflect CPU, storage, and memory. Instead, they reflect the user's mental model by using iconography of a mouse, keyboard, screen, or other interface elements that match what a user perceives as “the computer.”

In my practice as a consultant, my greatest value to a project has been my ability to bring together all the various concerns and factors to create a workable design. This framework is my attempt to have an approachable, high level, and reasonably complete inventory of the areas that can impact a designed experience.

Designed experience begins with an understanding of the people who will interact with a system and it ends with an understanding of the context and society into which the system will be introduced.