The Elements of the User Experience

There is something gratifying about picking up a book by an author whose concept is so elegantly elements-of-user-elements

displayed, with a message so clear, that you want to share it with everyone you know. For those of us who have been engaged in the creative development of the Web for the last few years, The Elements of the User Experience, the first book by Jesse James Garrett, is that kind of book. I honestly wish this book had been available to me in the mid-to-late-90s when I was doing some of my early Web development, trying to get my superiors to understand why it didn’t make sense to name the sections of our site after the company’s divisions (after the most recent reorganization).

The Model

Based on his model of the same name (PDF), which he published on his Web site in 2000, Garrett has thoughtfully given texture, depth and meaning to a complex process. He has expanded the model through insight, not so much as a how-to guide, but as a thought-process guide–providing a backdrop for the decision-making processes that go into building a successful Web site.

While many of us in the Web Design field immediately recognize terms like user-centered design and customer or user experience, there are still many in the business, project management and IT sectors who are still unfamiliar with these terms and their implications. In the first chapter, Garrett explains the concept of user experience and what it means within and beyond the Web context. He emphasizes why it is important to consider the user at every step of the design and development process.


The enhancements of the model detailed in the second chapter provide the foundation and introduce the concept of the individual planes (each of which is detailed in a chapter of its own). Garrett now names the planes, from the abstract to the concrete: Strategy, Scope, Structure, Skeleton, Surface. While they may not seem linked in the parlance of Web site development, once layered on the original model they provide an ideal framework.


  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

With this nomenclature, Garrett reminds of us of the familiar. Most of those in the business sector will be familiar with the strategy development–here expressed where user needs are balanced with site objectives or business goals. Anyone involved in project management should be familiar with the term scope… and its close cousin, “scope creep.” The concept of structure, for example, should have a familiar ring to anyone who builds anything–be it buildings, software or Web sites.

Organizing like the information architect he is, Garrett uses the next five chapters to expand upon the five planes, detailing their interrelationships and interdependencies. Throughout he makes it clear that the development process must remain a flexible one, as decisions made in one part of the project can (and most likely will) call for changes somewhere else.

Moving through the model, and hence the entire process of designing with the user in mind, Garrett takes the time to address all of his audiences. His comments on the business considerations with the strategy plane will open the eyes to some Web development, while his discussion of the structure plane directly addresses some specific technical issues.

One of the things I particularly appreciate about this book is the attention to the different places where we should involve the user directly. Those of us involved in usability sometimes think we are either “preaching to the choir” or are perceived as “those test people” who cost a lot of money and slow down the process. In the last chapter on “The Elements Applied,” Garrett explains cogently that this is not the case. Involving the user early and often saves money in the long run. Projects that lack user input (“those often cut from a project that’s behind schedule or over budget”) yield a product that “falls short of everyone’s expectations. Not only have you failed to solve your original problem, you’ve created new ones… because the next big project… is to attempt to address the shortcomings of the last project.”


Garrett writes clearly and engagingly, recognizing that his audience varies from an executive charged with hiring a user experience team, to someone new to the field, to experienced practitioners who might want to communicate more effectively to the people they work with. For some of us, it will finally be a way to explain to our family members what we’ve been doing for the last five to eight years.

Written with restraint, offering just enough information to get the reader’s interest, without the fear of a daunting, long read, Garrett has succeeded in whetting the appetite of his readers. For those who want to know more, Garrett has provided additional resources at the end of each chapter and on his companion Web site.

His examples will have many readers nodding their heads in recognition, particularly at the examples of bad user experiences that many of us have just come to accept. While not designed to be the complete how-to guide for implementing a complete user-centered design program, Garrett has written a terrific primer on the topic that will be useful to many, particularly in settings where there is some recognition that the Web is not working for the users and it is time for a change.

The Elements of the User Experience
By Jesse James Garrett
New Riders Publishing, 2002, 208pp.