Talking with Jesse James Garrett

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“Many an information architecture has run aground on the rocky shoals of corporate politics.”B&A: Congratulations on the new book. You must be excited to be finished and have the work out there for the community to learn from.

JJG: I’m very gratified by the reception people have given the book so far. The initial feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive. Also, if nothing else, writing this book has really changed the way I experience bookstores. I have a whole different appreciation for the amount of work packed into even the slimmest volume on the shelves.

B&A: The new book, “The Elements of User Experience”, grew out of the diagram (EOUE) you created a few years ago. What made you decide to expand these ideas into a book?

JJG: When I released the diagram, I really thought only the insiders—people who had to wrestle with this stuff on a daily basis—would find it interesting or valuable. And, in a sense, I was right. But what I discovered was that those insiders were not just using the diagram to talk among themselves. They were using it to help communicate to outsiders about their work. As I heard more and more stories about people using the diagram in this way, I came to realize that there might be a market for a book that did all that explaining on our behalf.

B&A: What are you trying to communicate with the book that is different from the original diagram?

JJG: The big difference is that the book doesn’t make any assumptions about what you already know. The diagram assumes some familiarity with concepts like HCI and the work of Edward Tufte. The book starts from scratch, assuming only that the reader has some experience using web sites. This was a big reason to keep the book so short—so that newcomers to the field wouldn’t get overwhelmed with procedural minutiae, and so that experienced practitioners wouldn’t get bored silly as I recount all these details they already know.

B&A: Who is your primary audience for the book? Once they finish that book, what do they read to learn more?

JJG: I’ve got two main audiences in mind for the book: newcomers to the field, those who may have web design or development skills who want to know how to bring a user-centered approach to their work; and decision-makers, the people who have to decipher what the heck these web people are talking about. Each of the main chapters has a list of additional books for those who want more detail on a particular topic. In addition, I’m putting together a resource page at that will point to further reading on the web.

B&A: Can senior practioners benefit from the book?

JJG: The main benefit of the book for the more experienced practitioners is as an evangelical tool. The book will give you some ways of expressing the value and importance of your work that you may not have had before.

B&A: Where did the idea for the original diagram come from?

JJG: Well, the whole story is in the book, but the short answer is that I was the first information architect in an organization that was traditionally design-oriented, and I felt I needed a tool to help me gain the trust and support of my colleagues. I toyed with the idea some, couldn’t make it work, and gave up on it entirely—or so I thought. My subconscious had other plans.

B&A: Did your series of articles, ia/recon, influence the book?

JJG: There’s one section of the book, in which I talk about the relative value of generalists versus specialists, that’s strongly reminiscent of ia/recon. That part probably would have been different, or maybe not in the book at all, if I hadn’t done recon first. But overall, the book covers pretty different territory; ia/recon is very much inside baseball—you have to be familiar with the issues facing the community to get the most out of it. The book is very much directed at outsiders to our community, people who may not have much interest in the issues covered in the essay.

B&A: Has your work with Adaptive Path affected your perspective on User Experience? Are the roles more fluid or more defined?

JJG: I now have a broader understanding of the different ways of looking at a user experience problem than I had before we started Adaptive Path. Within the partnership, we’re more or less interchangeable—we’ve really gone out of our way to make sure that knowledge doesn’t get compartmentalized.

B&A: What’s the hardest project you ever worked on? What made it so challenging?

JJG: The most difficult projects I’ve faced have been cases where I didn’t have direct access to the people making the final decisions about my work. Many an information architecture has run aground on the rocky shoals of corporate politics. As much as we may want to withdraw into a world of pure problem solving, we have to acknowledge that the most successful architectures are the ones you can actually convince someone to implement.

B&A: Do you have to do IA on every project? Is usability needed on all design projects?

JJG: People get hung up on specific techniques too easily. Look past the technique to see the problem the technique is intended to address. If “doing IA” means diagrams, nav specs, wireframes, then no, you don’t always have to do IA. But if “doing IA” means thinking about the structure of your site, then absolutely, you need to do IA every time.

B&A: If you had to hire an IA or an interaction designer for a typical ecommerce site, who would you go with?

JJG: One big frustration that I have with the current state of our discipline is that I can’t identify the people doing the best work. Everybody says Amazon’s interaction design is a big factor in the company’s success—why don’t I know the names of any of the people responsible for it? Why do most consultancies hide their talented staff, whose expertise makes their success possible, behind a faceless corporate identity?

B&A: If you had unlimited budget to redesign a giant site—say Amazon—what would your ideal UX group consist of? What would your process be?

JJG: Mmm, unlimited budget. There a few things I’d include in the process. Deep research—really get inside the heads of users. Controlled real-world deployment of alternative approaches to defined segments of the user base, gathering detailed metrics on actual user behavior. Constant iteration, creating a steady stream of incremental refinements.

B&A: Should designers learn usability? What about ID and IA?

JJG: The more everybody knows about all aspects of the problems we face, the better off all of us will be. Less time spent explaining things means more time for coming up with creative solutions.

B&A: Are there some roles better filled by consultants and some by in-house folks?

JJG: I’m not sure that you can say definitively that some roles are better filled by consultants, but I would say that some projects are better handled by consultants. If you need to take a step back from day-to-day operations and plot out the long-term direction of your user experience strategy, consultants can give you a perspective you can’t get on your own.

B&A: Has your perspective/definition of the different elements of user experience changed since the creation of the original diagram? Did the work on book change any of the original definitions or did you just refine what was already defined?

JJG: There are some aspects of the diagram that I wish I had expressed a little more clearly. The book has given me the opportunity to elaborate on and refine those definitions. The underlying ideas remain the same, though. I toyed with the idea of updating the diagram to more precisely match the book, but in the end I decided it would be best to leave it intact. The document’s flaws are not worth fussing over, and anyway the execution always falls short of the conception.

B&A: Do you consider yourself an information architect?

JJG: Absolutely, though I wouldn’t suggest that my job description should be applied to all IAs. My job involves a lot of different skills now—I’m as much entrepreneur and management consultant as anything else these days—but IA is still my favorite part of the work I do. The information architecture community is my home turf. Plus, I figure that if enough of us keep writing “information architect” on our tax forms, somebody will sit up and take notice.

B&A: If you could ask Jakob Nielsen one question, what would it be?

JJG: What would you do if you had to create an interface without being able to test it?

B&A: Microsoft uses your document “EOUE”—does this scare you?

JJG: It doesn’t scare me. It should scare Microsoft’s competitors.

B&A: Why did you use Fisher Price people instead of Weebles in your book diagrams? You know, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down…”

JJG: Any resemblance between my illustrations and any toy figures, past or present, is purely coincidental. Besides, Weebles are too hard to draw—they just end up looking like eggs, not people.

B&A: How did journalism influence your brand of user experience design?

JJG: A journalist and an information architect face exactly the same problem—how to give shape to the pile of information in front of you in a way that will make it easy and natural for people to comprehend. I can’t imagine any better preparation for the work I do now.

B&A: Do you own any color of clothes other than black?

JJG: No. It makes clothes shopping easier.

B&A: Now that the book is here, what’s next?

JJG: Right now, I’ve got to make it up to my partners in Adaptive Path for letting me take time off to write this book. We’re cooking up some ideas for 2003 that I think the community will find very exciting. In the meantime, I’m eager to get back to doing some IA work. That’s what it’s all about for me.

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL in the Web Properties division. She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She can be reached at .

The Elements of User Experience

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“The most admirable element (pun intended) of the book is its ability to blend the idea of being an advocate for the user with the idea of being an advocate for the business.”With his first book, Jesse James Garrett, an occasional Boxes and Arrows contributor, has taken a deceptively simple diagram and expanded it into a thorough primer on the fundamentals of online user experience design. His rational and straightforward approach is miles away from the often-criticized dogmatic rhetoric frequently found in the areas of usability, design, and business.

The Elements of User Experience” is based on the one-page diagram (PDF) of the same name. Posted for free downloading in early 2000, the diagram quickly became one of the most important tools and popular pieces of cubicle decoration for web designers, developers, and anyone even remotely involved in crafting the user experience. It made clear the separations and connections between the different factors involved, offering enough of an explanation and synthesis of ideas to aid in understanding, but at the same time leaving out much that could not fit on a single page.

Compared to the full book, the original “Elements” document is like a Cliffs Notes version (and a highly abridged one at that). The one-page diagram is certainly useful, and may be all that is needed for some people, but to truly learn and comprehend, more is needed.

Conveniently, the book is arranged in a similar manner to the diagram. After an introduction to user experience and an overview of the elements, a chapter is devoted to each of the five “planes” — Strategy, Scope, Structure, Skeleton, and Surface — in the diagram, with a final chapter devoted to applying the elements in the real world.

Garrett’s writing style is clean and straightforward, providing enough detail to explain concepts to beginners while not boring more advanced practitioners. As one would expect of an author who is also an information architect, the book is very structured with well-defined sections. But the rigid framework still allows the sections to flow without abrupt changes in topic or lines of reasoning. It is as comfortable to read from cover to cover as it is to dive right in and read just one chapter or element.

The most admirable element (pun intended) of the book is its ability to blend the idea of being an advocate for the user with the idea of being an advocate for the business. Too often, user experience is given a bad rap because of its lack of business sense, and many who draw criticism do so incorrectly and unfairly by using the “user experience” label when they really are speaking only of “usability” or “visual design.”

Garrett has laid out a framework for consideration of the entire process of designing the user experience, including business, technical, usability, and design concerns. Paragraphs dealing with interaction design are peppered with comments about technical feasibility, and sections on user needs include discussions on brand image. By giving as much attention to a site’s objectives and functional specifications as to its interface design and user needs, Garrett has succeeded in creating a single book that can enlighten “suits” about user experience issues while at the same time teaching designers, information architects, and usability specialists about the necessity of understanding the business aspects involved.

Those who are looking for a short and easy yet informative resource about user experience design will be delighted. However, those looking for more advanced information or more in-depth focus may be disappointed. This is to be expected; it is simply not possible to cover the entire realm of user experience in detail while at the same time keeping the book to a svelte 208 pages. This point is conceded by the author, as additional resources are suggested at the conclusion of each chapter. He admirably restrains himself on subjects that could be discussed more thoroughly, providing enough information for most readers, while planting the seeds and providing the water for those who wish to learn more.

There is probably no better book on the market that so clearly and rationally covers the entire area of user experience. This book is a perfect introduction for someone who is coming from the design, technical, or business side and is just getting into the field of user experience design, or someone with experience in one of the elements who feels the need to study up on the others. Advanced practitioners may find that Garrett’s book serves well as a reference or “backup” in project meetings or those inevitable design “discussions,” but it is unlikely they will uncover much new material. On the book’s companion website, Garrett states that the book is intended to be “an ideal introduction to the field for students or entry-level practitioners,” but he also “hope[s] that the book will provide experienced practitioners with some new ways of thinking about the work they’ve been doing.” On both points, he has succeeded with flying colors.

Read an excerpt (PDF) from “The Elements of User Experience”.

  • The Elements of User Experience
  • Jesse James Garrett
  • New Riders, 2002
  • ISBN 0735712026 § 208 pages
  • List price: $29.99
  • Target audience: “Hopefully, just about anyone.”
  • Chapters:
    1. User Experience and Why It Matters
    2. Meet the Elements
    3. The Strategy Plane: Site Objectives and User Needs
    4. The Scope Plane: Functional Specifications and Content Requirements
    5. The Structure Plane: Interaction Design and Information Architecture
    6. The Skeleton Plane: Interface Design, Navigation Design, and Information Design
    7. The Surface Plane: Visual Design
    8. The Elements Applied

Jeff Lash is a Usability Specialist and Information Architect at MasterCard International, and writes the IAnything Goes column for Digital Web Magazine. He is also the co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture. His personal website is

Small Pieces, Big Thoughts

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Dave Weinberger brings new focus to how we see the Internet in “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”

Small Pieces Loosely Joined” is touted on the cover as “A Unified Theory of the Web.”“The Web couldn’t have been built if everyone had to ask permission first.”
—David Weinberger
But its author, David Weinberger, knows better. And he says as much in the book. It’s a unified theory, but not the kind you sum up in a tidy little equation. It’s unified in its single-mindedness to see the Internet with a certain lens, and to understand how the paradigms are shifting under our feet like tectonic plates, imperceptibly perhaps, but enough to change the fabric of the world we live in.

Dave Weinberger gets around. His earlier careers have included being a philosophy professor, a consultant, and a marketing executive. He has a regular commentary broadcast on NPR; he co-wrote the hugely popular book The Cluetrain Manifesto, and he has articles and speaking engagements all over the place. His surreptitiously published ‘zine known as JOHO (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization) is widely read and quoted by loads of neterati. And he recently joined the denizens of Blogistan with his own weblog at JOHO the Blog. (For the nitty gritty on DW’s life and times, check his Bio page.)

If you’ve read Cluetrain (and if you haven’t, shame on you!), you’re familiar with Weinberger’s sardonic wit and talent for boiling challenging ideas down into pithy metaphors. There’s plenty of that on display here. But as a departure from Cluetrain, the book is less focused on the practicalities of business, and is more a treatise on how the Internet and all massively shared internetworked environments (for the book, conflated to the common term “the Web”) are changing us as social beings.

As for whether or not to read Small Pieces, I’ll cut to the chase: if you think you’re an architect of anything vaguely Internet-related, you should read this book.

There are a number of reasons why “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” is significant for information architects and experience designers of all stripes: it helps us understand how the Web is about more than just information retrieval and ecommerce. It reminds us why most of us got excited about the Web in the first place and tries to renew hope about its value in our lives.

Along the way, the book draws from influences as diverse as Heidegger, theology, and quantum physics to make convincing arguments about the nature of reality on the Web, as well as the nature of knowledge, time, and community. Of course, nobody could expect an encyclopedic treatment of these issues in just under 200 pages. And although Small Pieces makes a valiant effort, its purpose isn’t to bring all these ideas full circle. It’s a spark to reignite a long dormant conversation about what’s really important about the Web.

+ + +

Weinberger starts out by acknowledging the current malaise we seem to feel about the Internet, but he assures us that “the hype about the Web hasn’t been unwarranted, only misdirected.” (p. xii) He wants us to reposition ourselves, clear our heads of preconceptions, and take a new look at the Web, saying “Suppose—just suppose—that the Web is a new world that we’re just beginning to inhabit.” (p. 8)

But trying to describe the Web in accurate language turns out to be quite a challenge. For one thing, it throws all our metaphors out of whack. For another, it is chock full of paradoxes that confuse everything we’ve learned about the world since we emerged as a species.

For example, the Web is perceived as having space, yet it doesn’t have any. It allows people to interact as massive groups, yet each participant retains a fine degree of control over their individuality. It is perhaps the greatest engineering marvel on a massive scale the world has seen, but it has happened with no centralized management or control.

Weinberger explains how the metaphors of “document” and “building” become conflated (or even mutated) into a single concept on the Web, saying “with normal documents, we read them, file them, throw them out, or send them to someone else. We do not go to them. We don’t visit them. Web documents are different. They’re places on the Web. … They’re there. With this phrase, space—or something like it—has entered the picture.” (p. 39) But this space isn’t measured by inches or miles. “On the Web, nearness is created by interest.” (p. 49) In this place, the closest distance between two points is measured by relevance.

Weinberger promotes the idea that the Web’s value doesn’t come so much from being a huge database of facts and figures as from being an unprecedented environment of collective human experience. The distinction is between conversation and reference: what compels us to really sink ourselves into the Web isn’t the data but the “sound of voices.” (p. 143)

In a very fundamental way, “the Web is a social place” (p. 166) where we can be “part of the largest public ever assembled and still maintain our individual faces.” (p. 177) This environment has written language as its DNA, and its pages are “social acts, written with others in mind.” (p. 165)

The words we find on the Web are the fabric of a new kind of world. While language has always been the stuff of world-making, from Gilgamesh to Tolkien, what’s different this time is that the Web is so massively and simultaneously experienced—by 300 million people and climbing.

And it is the peculiar, flawed, rough-hewn authenticity of human voices that make this new place so palpable. Weinberger has a whole chapter on Perfection for this reason. “Imperfection is our shibboleth on the Web, the sign by which we know we’re talking with another human being.” (p. 94) It is organized out of chaos, and splendidly unmanaged. Weinberger cheekily points out, “The Web couldn’t have been built if everyone had to ask permission first.” (p. 53) The imperfection of the Web is its great merit, a symptom of its authenticity and humanity.

Another paradox arises from the kind of humanity we experience on the Web. It is both massively public and highly individualized. It teaches what it might mean to “replace the faceless masses with face-ful masses.” (p. 100) The Web has begun to change how we think of being public and having fame.

Being public has changed in part because of the new way people experience one another online, and because that experience is tied so closely with words and conversations. “Although elements of real-world conversations appear in threaded discussions, there is nothing quite like threaded discussions in the real world.” (p. 110) Because the Web allows for the persistence of conversation threads beyond the moment of their utterance, and because it allows for people to transcend the limitations of their physical social surroundings, one person can have a loyal following as an expert or particularly brilliant and witty commentator on a remote, esoteric topic. Forever twisting Warhol’s quip beyond all recognition, Weinberger says, “On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” (p. 104)

For that matter, someone with a rare disease can have meaningful community with others who share their ailment, no matter how geographically distant. Ethnic minorities in distant countries (who are lucky enough to have Web access) can commiserate and communicate about their lives. Families can feel more immediately connected than the occasional paper letter allows. These are all things that didn’t exist before this global network arrived, and they have become so taken for granted that we miss the phenomenal changes that have resulted. One change, Weinberger argues, is that the Web has actually returned us to a more community-based way of relating to one another.

Weinberger isn’t much on rugged individualism. His point: It is in its ability to connect us to and with others (both connections between people and hyperlinks between information, one being essentially an outward manifestation of the other) that the Web is valuable to us. Individuals are of course necessary for this to happen, but “Groups are the heart of the Web.” (p. 105) Weinberger blames everyone from Descartes to Sartre for getting us into our solipsistic funk (“To a solipsist, the Web is the most irrelevant contraption ever invented.” (p. 182)), and credits the Web with being a source of hope for getting us out again. He believes we are “at our best when we acknowledge our deep attachment to the others of our world.” (p. 182)

In our jobs as designers of shared information environments, should we keep in mind that the Web has a moral dimension? After all, what we are designing and creating are places for people to live, work, and play together. Even the most mundane standalone business application can have resounding implications for how an organization’s employees interact with one another and their customers. Think of how much more powerful its effects can be when it’s a networked application that connects those people’s ideas, decisions, and daily work so profoundly.

True, some of Weinberger’s statements of sweeping optimism seem, at first glance, naïve. But Weinberger grounds his sentiment in some fairly rigorous rationale. To be honest, the book isn’t a hard-core philosophical dissertation, but that’s a good thing. Small Pieces isn’t for tweed-encrusted academics—it’s for the somewhat educated masses. This book is like its subject, the Web. It’s an amalgam of ideas and obsessions, observations and perceptions that the author is releasing upon the public, hoping others will take these ideas and run with them. Whether Weinberger is right or wrong is beside the point (and I’d guess he would agree). The point is that these ideas not be ignored, and that we consider them in our lives and work; that we continue the conversation.

About the book:

For more information:

Andrew Hinton an Internet obsessive since 1989, is a senior information architect at The Vanguard Group in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer

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“The more respected a client feels, the more secure he’ll feel with your work and the less he will feel the need to watch your every move, thus giving you more freedom as a designer,” (p. 35)Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer Hillman Curtis. June 2002. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing. [ISBN: 0-7357-1165-8. 240 pages. $45.00 (softcover).] Hillman Curtis first introduced readers to his revolutionary approach to New Media design in the best seller Flash Web Design. Curtis returns with his new book to explain the art of Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer. The book reveals how to combine the right processes with enough inspiration to produce successful New Media projects.

Curtis begins by teaching readers the “Process” his company, hillmancurtis, inc., uses to produce some of the best New Media projects in the industry today. The process consists of seven steps: Listen, Unite, Theme, Concept, Eat the Audience, Filter and Justify. Each chapter in this section of the book takes an in-depth look at each step of the process. Curtis notes that steps often mix and overlap in order to get everything moving in the right direction.

The Listen step involves gathering as much information about the client and product as possible. Although Curtis stresses the usual point that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, he goes one step further. The Listen step also means searching to understand the story behind the company. According to Curtis, knowing “the company’s history, its points of pride, its shortcomings, and its core values is pure gold.” (p. 28)

The Unite step might sound like some warm and fuzzy client love-fest, but Curtis’ recommendations are right on target. He reminds New Media professionals to involve the client early and often during the planning stages of the project. “The more respected a client feels, the more secure he’ll feel with your work and the less he will feel the need to watch your every move, thus giving you more freedom as a designer,” (p. 35) writes Curtis. Keeping the lines of communication open takes discipline, but the results pay off in the end.

“Our challenge as designers is to target a given project’s theme and use it as a guide that will influence every design decision we make, from the initial concept to the final composition.” (p. 41) That statement basically sums up MTIV’s attitude towards targeting a project’s Theme. And drawing a target is literally what Hillman Curtis recommends doing to hit the mark. He explains a simple exercise that can help you zero-in on the target and direction of the project.

Curtis draws a comparison to Pink Floyd’s The Wall album to illustrate the power and importance of the Concept. “Think of it this way: a concept is an idea. Our job as designers is to visually explain that idea.” (p. 57) Sketches, storyboards, and keeping your eye out for great ideas are the best ways to explore different conceptual possibilities. Along the way you solicit feedback from other members of the creative team and the client to create the right soil for good concepts to grow.

The Eat the Audience step is meant to remind designers that the audience needs to be included in the process just like everyone else. This is especially true in New Media design where the user is often unseen. Curtis discusses how to conduct “poor man’s focus groups” and other activities to find out more about the project’s target audience.

Both the Filter and Justify steps involve the compromises and streamlining needed to get the best end result. The limitations and constraints of bandwidth, browsers, plug-ins and countless other obstacles are challenges that New Media professionals must constantly deal with. Curtis looks at them as a way to “filter” out non-essential elements from the design. To further pare down the design you need to be able to “justify” it to the rest of the team. This step acts as the final checkpoint in the process.

Now, all the great processes in the world are useless without good execution. You have to combine know-how with inspiration to get the best results. MTIV’s second section is devoted entirely to demystifying the notion of “Inspiration.” For Hillman Curtis, inspiration “is the air we breathe to fuel our creative progress.” (p. 104) While this sounds very ethereal, Curtis is also quick to point out that there’s no such thing as divine inspiration. New Media professionals walk down a creative path filled with ideas and examples, and on this path they can’t help borrowing and sharing some of the things they find along the way.

Curtis explains how he constantly immerses himself in design books and magazines. “It’s all part of my ongoing effort to draw from the work of others. Finding in design books, perhaps, great starting points; or from movies or their titles, blueprints; or from poems or fiction, maps to follow.” (p. 113) Along the way, you piece ideas together until you reach a flash point where inspired creativity takes over. While reading MTIV you can’t help but notice how much Hillman Curtis has been influenced by the motion picture industry.

The “Practice” section of MTIV goes on to show what happens when proven processes meet inspiration in a design setting. Hillman Curtis likes to refer to it as “a sort of ‘Everything I ever wanted to know about New Media design basics but was afraid to ask’ section.” (p. 15) It includes a thorough review of everything from color theory to typography, and designing for the Web, broadcast and print mediums. Well-known professionals like Steve Krug, Katharine Green and Joseph Lowery make guest appearances to chime in a on a variety of topics. This section alone would have made a fine book of its own.

Hillman Curtis’ minimalist approach to design also appears to be his approach to writing. In just a few words he captures the essence of what it means to be a New Media designer and what it takes to push into unknown territory. Curtis passionately believes that “New Media design is a new frontier. It’s like the Wild West -full of pioneers who’ve traded their old professions for the wide open space of new possibilities.” (p. 138)

“Making the Invisible Visible” is a 240-page nonstop sensory experience, from the introduction to the index. At first I wondered if the book was all style and no substance, but Curtis hooked me after the first few pages. I found myself constantly commenting on how on-target his observations were, and how no other book has really captured what it means to be a New Media designer like MTIV does. I highly recommend this book to those in the profession who are looking for a spark to ignite their skills.

About the book:

Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog,, covers a range of issues and topics.

“Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”

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“Experience design,” as it’s often used in the online world, refers to everything a customer comes in contact with when having experience with a brand—what the colors are, what emotions the design conveys, how the text is written, ease of interaction with the web site, how the content is structured, and much more. Information architects and designers sometimes forget that there is an offline experience as well; Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” explores customer experience and consumer behavior as they affect retail and offline environments.

Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published, but many of its predictions about online retailing have come to fruition.Overall, the book is a lively read, chock full of interesting stories, research data, and case studies. There are sections dealing with product usability, environmental graphics and navigation, demographic issues, location, marketing and promotion. Obviously a seasoned professional, Underhill presents business issues in a straightforward manner, backing up his claims and suggestions with anecdotal and statistical evidence.

Though the majority of the book focuses on “traditional” retailing, Chapter 17 specifically talks about online retailing. Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published (May 1999), but many of Underhill’s predictions about online retailing have come to fruition, and his bottom-line insistence on “you need a reason to start a web site” rings true in today’s economic environment.

One neglected aspect of ecommerce he mentions on the first page of the chapter has already been addressed by many retailers: “Few web sites will permit you to see if a particular item is in stock in a store near you, order it, pay for it and then go in person to retrieve it.” It would be interesting to hear the author’s feelings on the current state of online retailing three years after this was written and see what advances he feels have been made and what problems still need to be addressed.

Another brilliant aspect of this book is its universal appeal. While those interested in usability and ecommerce have snapped it up, it is not limited to those limited audiences. (In fact, those who lament “I can’t explain to my Mom what I do all day” might benefit from suggesting a read of “Why We Buy” and then adding, “It’s like that but with web sites.”)

If there’s any downfall of the book, it would be the sometimes-meandering text. The reader may expect a more of a textbook-like approach to physical experience design, but Underhill’s writing style mixes case studies with anecdotes, business, psychology, and opinions.

Though divided up into four sections and 19 chapters that purport to focus on specific topics, the end results often diverge from their intended subject. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it feels as though Underhill is leading the reader on a walking tour of a business, pointing out issues during the journey and recalling anecdotes whenever appropriate. However, those looking for a tome on the design of physical commerce spaces need look elsewhere.

There are dozens of lessons in “Why We Buy” that can be learned by those involved in web development, whether in ecommerce or brochureware. One is that, even after decades of running tests, Underhill and his staff are still learning new things and uncovering problems they’ve never noticed before, showing that continual learning is essential.

The author also talks about the importance of evaluating elements in the environment in which the customer will interact with them. (“Showing me a sign in a conference room, while ideal from the graphic designer’s point of view, is the absolute worst way to see if it’s any good. To say whether a sign or any in-store media works or not, there’s only one way to assess it—in place.”)

He devotes a good deal of printed space to the differences in the shopping habits of men and women, as well as the growing aging population and children, which suggests that these demographically-influenced habits (and others) could carry over to the online world.

However, two main messages permeate throughout, and they should be familiar, since those involved in designing the user experience online have been focused on them all along.

First, understand your customer and make things easy for them. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable, don’t confuse them, don’t make them do more work than they should. Structure things so that they make sense to your customer, for their actions will determine whether or not what you have done is successful.

Secondly, understand the business goals and design your changes to work towards those goals. Aesthetics, navigation, and structure are of no use if they don’t support the business objectives. And, of course, designing with your shopper/user in mind will help you reach these goals.

About the book:

  • “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”
  • Paco Underhill
  • Simon & Schuster, 1999
  • ISBN 0-684-84913-5
  • 225 pages
  • Hardcover retail price, $25.00; Paperback retail price, $15.00
  • Target audience: Anyone interested in retail or ecommerce
  • Sections:
     I–Instead of Samoa, Stores: The Science of Shopping
     II–Walk Like an Egyptian: The Mechanics of Shopping
     III–Men are from Sears Hardware, Women are from Bloomingale’s: The Demographics of Shopping
     IV–See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Buy Me: The Dynamics of Shopping
Jeff Lash is working on improving the intranet user experience at Premcor. He was previously an Information Architect at Xplane and is the co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture.