Content strategy, design and technology

The Contentologist                | Weblog Sept 25, 2004 | 

Q & A with Jesse James Garrett

mugshot of Jesse James Garrett

Jesse James Garrett is author of the landmark information architecture book, Elements of User Experience.

He is also the founding partner of Adaptive Path, a user experience consulting company.

The Elements of User Experience got its start on your Web site. What are the origins of that book?

The model described in the book really grew out of my need to explain the work I did to the people I had to collaborate with. I was the first information architect in a rapidly growing design firm, and many people there weren't familiar with IA. I drew up the model in a single-page PDF document, and when it was finished I thought maybe some others in the field might find it useful. I posted it to my site, and it was the popularity of that document that led to the demand for a whole book on the model.

Do you have any new books coming out, or are you working on a new book now?

I'm not working on a new book at the moment. My company, Adaptive Path, has been in high demand since my first book came out, and managing that growth is really consuming most of my attention lately. I do have a couple of ideas for books that I'd like to tackle; I hope to be able to turn my attention to them sometime next year.

How would you define "user experience" to a non-techie?

I define user experience as the way a product operates and behaves in the real world. In other words, what's it like to use the product? What kind of an experience is that? The philosophy of user experience design is that we can plan that experience before it happens and build certain qualities into it.

There are professional firms that call themselves information architects (ia), usability specialists, user experience designers (uxd), or just Web designers. Is this a sign that as the Internet evolves, expert roles are changing as well, or are Internet experts are gradually coalescing into specific fields of expertise to create professional standards and self-governance, as in other professions? Are all of these different titles confusing for clients who are paying for those services?

There are certainly more experts and specialists than there used to be. But I think it's important to remember that for every specialist, there are a dozen generalists who have to handle many aspects of site design. Most information architecture work is not done by an information architect. I think the specialist community is missing an opportunity to raise the bar for the entire field by neglecting to find ways to help non-specialists do better work.

Are many user experience designers following your five-tiered model, generally speaking, or do you see many variations of it in the field?

I think there isn't a strong impetus for people to come up with new models these days. One of the reasons the Elements model was so popular right from the start was that it was really filling a vacuum. A lot of people were wrestling with these ideas, but there hadn't really been a concise, visual articulation of how the pieces fit together. These days, people don't have the same motivation because these ideas have been much more fully explored over the last several years.

Your Visual Vocabulary Model for describing information architecture and interaction design has become a standard modelling language because of its logic and clarity. Do you anticipate having to make any changes to the current version 1.1b, and if so, what sort of changes do you anticipate and why?

The current version has been stable for a few years now. For the problems I designed the vocabulary to address, I haven't encountered anything about the system that needs to change, and I've been using it longer than anybody! Of course, I may find myself wanting to extend the system to tackle new kinds of problems. So any changes would probably involve a significant leap forward — a Visual Vocabulary 2.0 — that would take the system into new territory.

In your book, you talk about the pitfalls of "design by default" (when a design structure follows the organization's existing technology structure), "design by mimicry" (when the user experience inappropriately follows conventions used on other sites) and "design by fiat" (when someone's personal prefernces drive the user experience decisions) -- what strategy can designers use when a client or (worse?) a company executive is determined to stray down one of the above paths?

It all comes down to having reasons for the choices we make, being able to articulate those reasons, and being able to trace our choices back to the needs, expectations, and behavior of the people who will be using our product. Executives are all too often satisfied to see that a product works. The question we should be asking — the question I think every designer is ultimately charged with — is not "does it work?" but "does it work well?"

How can user experience design positively impact eGovernment projects and other public sector or non-profit organizations where issues like accessibility and universal design are important?

I think the various eGovernment initiatives are very encouraging for the field of user experience. Right now, the public sector unquestionably has its hands full meeting accessibility standards. But once they've made substantial headway there, it seems inevitable that they'll turn their attention to user experience. It's just a matter of time before agencies discover that accessibility is just one part of fulfilling their public mission, and that their sites aren't serving the public if everyone can access them but no one can use them.

Taking a longer view, where is the Internet going and will user experience issues be overshadowed in the future by purely IT developments?

If anything, the role of user experience is only going to become more important as the sophistication of our technology increases. We're never satisfied with what our technology does for us — we're always pushing it to do more. That ever-growing complexity means that user experience designers are going to be busy for a long time to come.

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