Review – The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web

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Visual design. Usability. Information architecture. Business objectives. Functional specifications. Information design. Interaction design. Navigation design.

Do you get dizzy trying to sort through the soup of competing (and often conflicting) ideas about the best way to approach the Web design process? Are you frustrated by authors who issue broad and general prescriptions that don’t always apply to the unique situations you deal with on a regular basis? Do you understand that the title of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think doesn’t apply to Web designers?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you will appreciate Jesse James Garret’s The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web (New Riders Publishing and the American Institute of Graphic Arts, 2003) as a valuable contribution to the existing body of Web design literature.

The Author’s History

Jesse James Garrett is one of the founders of Adaptive Path, a user experience consultancy based in San Francisco. He has worked in the Internet industry since 1995, and is recognized as a leading contributor to the growing discipline of information architecture. Of particular note is his Visual Vocabulary, an open notation system for information architecture documentation.

This book builds and expands on a diagram first published by Garrett on his Website (www.jjg.net) in the spring of 2000. This diagram visually depicts the relationships between different approaches to Web design, showing how they all fit together as a greater whole, bound by the common thread of user experience. In the final product, Garrett delivers a cohesive and overarching framework for understanding and dealing with the issues involved with user-centered design.

The Book’s Philosophy and Contents

User experience, defined as how a product behaves and is used in the real world, is critical to the success of a Website. If your users do not have a positive experience using your site, the likelihood that they will return is greatly reduced. Recognizing this important fact, the author asserts that "everything the user experiences should be the result of a conscious decision on your part." Therefore,

"The user experience development process is all about ensuring that no aspect of the user’s experience with your site happens without your conscious, explicit intent. This means taking into account every possibility of every action the user is likely to take and understanding the user’s expectations at every step of the way through that process."

While this initially appears to be a daunting task, Garrett helps us think through the wide variety of issues that effect user experience by breaking the Web design process into five "planes":

  • Strategy (site objectives and user needs)
  • Scope (functional specifications and content requirements)
  • Structure (interaction design and information architecture)
  • Skeleton (interface design, interaction design, and information design)
  • Surface (visual design)

These planes are both interrelated and interdependent, with the choices available to us on each plane constrained by our previous decisions. Beginning with the more abstract (strategy and planning) and progressing towards the concrete (visual design), Garrett identifies issues that effect user experience at each stage. With a complete chapter dedicated to each plane, the discussion is salted with practical advice based on the author’s experience, with particular attention given to team roles and process.

Appreciating the unique situations encountered with every Web design project, Garrett is more concerned with helping us learn to ask the right questions rather than presuming to provide the "right answers." Garrett maintains this focus throughout the book, and refrains from venturing into technical details (which, in this case, is a good thing). For those of us who are hungry for more information, the end of each chapter provides valuable references for further reading.

Designing successful Websites requires meeting both business goals and user needs while working with the (often limited) resources available. Accomplishing this requires that everyone involved on a project understands the "big picture" and where they fit into that big picture. Regardless of whether you work as a freelancer or as part of a Web design team, you will appreciate the serious ammunition provided in this book for explaining the importance of planning and "big picture" thinking to clients and other stakeholders.

The Bottom Line

This book was a pleasure to read. Garrett has a relaxed, but to-the-point, style of writing that is supplemented with useful analogies and illustrations where appropriate. With only 189 pages, this book can be easily read in an afternoon/evening. While the material can be digested quickly, it is sure to get you thinking. I know it helped me to form a more consistent view of how all the different elements of Web design fit together, from strategy to visual design and everything in-between.

While there aren’t many new ideas presented in this book, its greatest value lies in the way important concepts are clearly defined, organized and presented. Accordingly, The Elements of User Experience is valuable for both new and seasoned practitioners. More than worth the price for the clarity it imparts, I strongly recommend it for everyone involved with designing Websites.

Rating: 5/5
Read Chapter Two on the author’s site.
Buy it at Amazon.com for $20.99 (List Price $29.99).

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