Talking with Jesse James Garrett

“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 jjg.net/elements/resources 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 .

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