Book review

X.5 September + October 2003
Page: 49
Digital Citation

The elements of user experience

Mary Deaton

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Boxes and Arrows is a Web magazine ( that describes itself as a publication for people who are part of "the profession known as 'what we do' and its children, information architecture, usability, interaction design, interface design, and graphic design." [2]

What do we do? In a recent edition of interactions, Aaron Marcus challenged us to look at how we define the language of our community [1]. What is user interface design? Is it the same as interaction design? Or information architecture? Further, there is no clear educational path required to do "what we do." We are not certified by a recognized organization whose job it is to certify "what we do." Sometimes, it isn't even clear what it is we do! Given all this, is labeling "what we do" the most critical problem we face? I don't think so, and neither does Jesse James Garrett.

In the foreword to his recent book, The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web, Garrett looks at "what we do" and proposes a model for how the user experience is designed. Garrett makes us look at Web design as a structured practice that moves across traditional design disciplines. He presents a coherent picture of the practice and process of Web creation that makes clear the work, techniques, and roles required to create an effective user experience. Garrett warns, however, that "this is not a book of answers. Instead, this is a book about asking the right questions. This book will tell you what you need to know before you go read those other [how-to] books" (p. 1).

Garrett may be familiar to those who have been around SIGCHI or the Web design world for the last few years. He is a principal in the design consultancy Adaptive Path. He developed his concept of user experience elements through his practice as an information architect. In 2000, he published the Visual Vocabulary, a modeling language for describing information architecture and interaction design (see for papers describing this vocabulary and downloadable versions of the model shapes). He also published a one-page diagram of his concept of the "elements" of user experience (see That diagram grew into this book.

Garret proposes a model of user experience that is formed of "elements" that exist within the "planes" of the development process. Every Web site grows from the bottom up on five planes: strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface. Each of these planes addresses the software interface and hypertext system elements that feed the creation of a user experience.

Recognizing that the Web is both a software interface and a hypertext system is a critical insight. Many who came early to Web design from graphic design, marketing, advertising, and other fields had no background in hypertext or software design. They were unaware of, or ignored the work of the early pioneers of human-computer interaction who described how people worked with interfaces, developed novel analysis tools, and delivered a rich theoretical heritage.

When the infant commercial Web was primarily a hypertext system for delivering marketing brochures, this pioneering theoretical work played a minimal role in the design decisions made by marketing, public relations, and advertising firms. Only when the Web became a popular choice for delivering software applications did we begin to see Web-focused publications and pundits grappling with topics like interactivity, reciprocity, design metaphors, usability, and elements of user experience. These novel applications of the Web also created pressure for practitioners grounded in software design and practitioners grounded in hypertext design to struggle to understand one another's approaches.

Garrett attributes the "Babel-like" confusion over the names of processes and jobs to the commingling of these two streams of design. Properly understanding the interplay between the Web as software interface and the Web as hypertext system is critical to resolving this confusion and building a compelling user experience, Garrett explains.

Garrett's model of user-centered design helps to illuminate how the software interface elements and the hypertext theory elements interact with one another—or merge as a user experience is designed. Working from the bottom of the model and up, site objectives and user needs form the strategy plane of the model. These are shared concerns between the Web as software interface and the Web as hypertext system. On the scope plane, functional specifications inform the Web as software system, whereas content requirements inform hypertext design. On the structure plane, the Web-as-software-system discipline of interaction design and the Web as hypertext-system-discipline of information architecture come into play. Those two elements inform the skeleton plane. On this plane, information design is a global concern that specializes into interface design (for the Web as software system) and navigation design (for the Web as hypertext system).

The only element on the surface place is visual design, an element of both software and hypertext. Even though users see only the surface, their experience is a product of all the planes below the surface. Starting with the strategy plane, each level delineates the design choices available at higher levels. The low-level definitions of user needs and site objectives lay the foundation that drives each plane of design, until all choices are finally manifested in one visual design. As Garrett says, "The choices you make on each plane affect the choices available to you on the next plane above it" (p. 25).

Garrett's structuring of the complete user experience illuminates the diverse roles required to construct both an effective interface and effective hypertext. It also illuminates why it is a nearly superhuman task for one person to play all of these roles. Garrett does not worry about job titles; he just worries about how each element is best designed. He also makes it clear that creating a user experience is difficult. It requires training and experience.

Garrett's model puts user and usability analysis at the foundation for the entire user experience. It is, after all, user-centered design. Although Garrett acknowledges the necessity of aligning business goals with user goals, he knows this is a delicate process and fraught with compromise. He also knows that technology is often more capable than needed to meet a user's particular needs and how difficult it can be to resist pizzazz. The arty-designer versus code-cowboy tension is real, but even that tension can be positive when development of the user experience is examined from Garrett's point of view. The tension between disciplines melts into a design process carried on by advocates of a shared, logical view.

Garrett has the job title of information architect, but he thinks widely, not narrowly. His model is of value to all Web practitioners who want to do thoughtful work.

back to top  References

1. Marcus, A. Dare we define user-interface design? Interactions 9, 5 (September-October 2002), pp. 19-24.

2. Wodtke, C. Prognostication Digitalis. Boxes and Arrows (January 1, 2003). Available at

back to top  Author

Mary Deaton is a "mature" graduate student in technical communication at the University of Washington. She left professional practice to have time to think about what it means to be a user experience designer in the age of the Web. She plans to pursue a doctorate and hopes she can catch it.

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