Elements of User Experience

Jesse James Garrett began writing The Elements of User Experience – User-Centered Design For The Web in 2001. The date and title alone are poof of Garrett’s thought leadership in the area of web design.

This important and nascent work was spawned by the popularity, as evidenced by tens of thousands of downloads, of Garrett’s Elements of User Experience diagram, first published in March of 2000. I first discovered it, somehow, in 2001, while Project Coordinator for Seagate Technology’s web marketing group. I found it inspiring, if a little abstract, yet immediately recognized it’s usefulness as a conceptual model to help professional web designers to better distinguish the unique elements that should, if well and purposfully integrated, equal more than the sum of their parts.

The elements flow in ascending order from abstract conception to concrete completion:

  • Visual Design
  • Information Design, Interface Design and Navigation Design
  • User Needs and Site Objectives
  • Functional Specifications and Content Requirements
  • Interaction Design and Information Architecture

These elements are then placed in a framework of “planes,” here in descending (and chronological) order, which also align a process beginning with abstract conception and, well, really beginning with concrete completion:

  • Strategy
  • Scope
  • Structure
  • Skeleton
  • Surface

The implications of his model are many, and great. One is that—resulting from the emergence of “information architecture”—a user’s pleasure could, and should, come as a result of interaction and information design itself, and not just from the application of visual “eye candy.” Another is that the visual element of web design, which was previously confused with user interface (UI) design, is best thought of as an end result of the integration of other design disciplines, and less a means in itself. This is an extremely useful concept. It represented a new way of talking about web design as a collaborative process, with distinct rolls and responsibilities. And just in time: division of labor and skill specialization was by then, if still highly collaborative, becoming the norm for people working on websites of significant scope and scale.

I spent the dot-com-bust era teaching Web Interface Design at Silicon Valley College, where I tried to impress Garrett’s ideas on my students. Then, User Experience was a new concept, and, admittedly, an advanced notion for a new web designer. My real intent was to “front load” it for re-identification later, when the benefits of his ideas could be experienced directly, in the field.

While Garrett proved his humble genius in text I was calling web sites “communications / software.” Well, not too far off I guess. Though I had come to realize that human-human interaction via the web was a greater goal than human-computer interaction, where the first web boom had focused. I was not nearly as articulate as Garrett in all this, but at least recognized the simple beauty of his easily absorbed visualization of UX elements. The Elements of User Experience, his only book, yet, elaborates on and expands the concepts exampled in his diagrams without seeming the least bit pedantic, practicing reader-centeredness in every turn of phrase.

Some phrases can seem a little simplistic to us now. For example: “The practice of creating engaging, efficient user experiences is called user-centered design.” Certainly we now recognize the validity of various other approaches to web design, as well. Yes?

Though the use of “user experience / UX design” is now common, I think it is still poorly understood by the web design and development community as a whole, not to mention the business community that normally surrounds it. There is a great deal of evidence—the too frequently sorry results of any web search—that the need for this book is as great as ever. For web design as much as for culinary arts, the recipe is the thing. And a recipe doesn’t just provide ingredients, it provides the process by which ingredience are combined to equal more than a sum of parts. The process alone determines the relationship between elements. And The Elements of User Experience provides one of the best approaches to web design; for ingredients, process, and responsibilities alike.

Now, in April 2008, though the Garrett’s UX book may seem a little rudimentary to the experienced web professional, this friendly and accessible little tome has stood the test of time (published seven years ago), especially when compared to it’s more ephemeral shelf-mates: the normal life-span of a web design book is shorter than that of a Mosquitofish.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone not already very familiar with UX/UE design, especially those involved in business and strategy, web technology and development, as well as those newer to web design, and looking to deepen their knowledge of the benefits of an user-centered approach to it.

More User Experience.UX Design Books

About Michael Cummings 31 Articles
Michael Cummings has been planning, designing, and producing interactive systems since 1995.
Contact: Website

2 Comments on Elements of User Experience

  1. Hi Michael,
    I agree with everything you say in your post, except that using a User Centred Design approach was not promoted by J. Garret in the first istance, but bu J. Nielsen. Garret major merit was to be the first to effectively visually illustrate the relationship between the design of interactions and contents.

    Another interesting diagram I find useful to describe the User Experience is Peter Morville’s UX Honeycomb.

  2. Quite a good read. User experience is now became a trending business services. This can be witnesses through several companies follow this UX design service to many of the business and resolve their professional complexities to a greater extent.

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