The Elements of User Experience

“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 jefflash.com.

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