Friday, February 19, 2010

The Elements of User Experience

The Elements of User Experience would be an unassuming title for a book -- after all it's only dealing with the basics -- but for history. Strunk and White, of course, set the standard with The Elements of Style. Kernighan and Plauger sought to adapt the Elements approach to coding in The Elements of Programming Style. As I recall (and it's been a while), they largely succeeded.

Both books seek not merely to discuss the basics of their topic, but to prescribe clear, crisp rules. Strunk and White famously urged writers to "Omit needless words." Kernighan and Plauger tell us to "Let the data structure the program." An Elements book is not just an outline. It's meant to be authoritative.

Jesse James Garrett's The Elements of User Experience looks, at least at first glance, like another member of the family. Like the others, it is built from brief, declarative sentences organized into clear, coherent paragraphs. Like the others, it reads easily and quickly. Information flows directly from the page to your brain.

But as Garrett explains it, he didn't set out to write anything in the vein of Strunk and White. He picked the word "elements" out of a thesaurus as a better alternative to "components" for a diagram he had put up on the web. The name stuck, as names tend to do. This explains why unlike its predecessors, which read more like lists of precepts grouped under a variety of headings, Garrett's book is built very explicitly on an overarching thesis: that user experience can be understood on five planes -- strategy, scope, structure, skeleton and surface -- each more concrete than the last.

Strategy concerns the overall goal. Scope comprises the particular features meant to accomplish that goal. Structure is how the features relate to each other. The skeleton is the visual arrangement of the various UI elements and the surface is their particular appearance. You can't produce a coherent user experience without considering these, and furthermore, while you can certainly start work on one plane before completing work on the one below it, you shouldn't start working on, say, structure without at least having begun to consider strategy and scope, and you can't sensibly finish a later phase before finishing what comes before it.

All this is very good stuff, and indeed there is useful insight on pretty much any page. What I deliberately haven't mentioned yet, leading into my one complaint about the book, is the subtitle: User-centered design for the web. Despite the broad reach of the main title, and the assertion in the introduction that "every product that is used by someone has a user experience," the book purports to be specifically about web site design. Thus the subtitle.

In one sense, the subtitle is right and the book is about web site design. The examples are all taken from web sites, and several of the planes are subdivided so as to consider a web site both as an application and as a web of information. This is no accident. Garrett is a web architect by profession and his original diagram came from trying to make sense of designing web sites.

Nonetheless, the book reads more as a study of how to design and construct nearly anything that people will use, that just happens to use web sites as a running example. That's not to say that there's nothing of particular use for web sites, only that most of the wisdom laid out is much more broadly applicable. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone setting out to produce a video game, or a monitoring tool, or a multi-media visitor center or perhaps even, to use one of Garrett's examples, a cardigan sweater.

By setting out to write User-centered Desing for the Web, and succeeding, Garrett has in fact produced The Elements of User Experience, with all the scope and authority that title implies. When the worst thing you can say about a book is that it's actually much more widely applicable than it claims to be, you know it's a good one. In the years since its publication (in 2003), The Elements of User Experience has received all kinds of good reviews. I can see why, and I'm happy to add my bit.

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