Impressions of Garrett's "Elements of UX"

"Ze plane, ze plane!"

These are my first impressions after a first pass through Jesse James Garrett's The Elements of User Experience.  What stood out for me were the issues he addressed that had been struggles for me in my prior experience within architecture and interior design.

Garrett breaks down the process of UX Design into 5 Planes:

• The Strategy Plane

• The Scope Plane

• The Structure Plane

• The Skeleton Plane

• The Surface Plane

I was drawn to strategy, surface, and structure.

Strategy Plane

The first thing that stood out for me was the Strategy Plane.  After all, who doesn't like to think Big Picture?  I certainly do, but a common problem with design is the lack of ability to quantify design's impact on a project.  The simple way of putting this is that many people are skeptical that the impact of design can be translated directly into dollars and cents.  As a result, I was deeply interested in the discussion of success metrics.

Now, these metrics are meant to be indicators of design success after a products launch, but even in a cursory explanation, Garrett does not fall into any pitfalls.  While something like increased visits per month from registered users each month could be a strong indicator that the launch of a recent site redesign has been an overwhelming success, teams must take a step back.  The data cannot be examined in a vacuum.  What have other teams been developing in this same window?  If the marketing team just completed a new campaign, it would appear that some deeper metrics would be required to ascertain the impact of these congruent projects.

However, it remains that design impact can be quantified though specific metrics when thoughtfully developed.  The main point to keep in mind when determining these metrics is that they should not necessarily focus around getting new users.  Rather, they should be created in a way to show whether design decisions are having an impact on whether or not those new users decide to come back.

Surface Plane

When considering the Surface Plane, I enjoyed the discussion of eyetracking as a way of evaluating the strength and effectiveness of visual design.  Of course, I am more interested in the highly technical aspect of this activity that actually involves sophisticated equipment.  I'm not big on the squint test, which is exactly that.  Formulating an understanding of web page hierarchy by simply looking at a website on a screen, and then squinting to see what stands out.  If you need to squint to see that the big photo of a cat playing the piano is the first thing you notice, then maybe UX just isn't your thing.

Anyway, true eyetracking gives a level of detail that users might not be able to properly express in an interview or even pick up on things that the users didn't even realize they were doing.  The two important qualities of eye patterns while viewing successful designs are smooth flow and a guided tour of possibilities.

Smooth flow indicates that a site has an effective hierarchy and this is expressed through smooth visual patterns on the page.  When users describe websites as cluttered or busy, it typically means that they had difficulty resting on a particular element on the page.  In essence, their eyes were searching for something to stand out or direct their next course of action.

The guided tour allows the users to see options for how to continue without detracting from the information being presented.  This is difficult to achieve, but more often not, the most successful examples exhibit elegant simplicity.  When too many options or features are layered into the process, the obvious result is clutter and sometimes confusion.

If only architects began to implement eyetracking technology when exposing clients to renderings and plans of a project for the first time.  That could be a game changer!  The client wouldn't be able to hide what he doesn't like when asked the question.  The design team could review the data and note the first place the client's eye went upon being asked questions like, "What is your least favorite element of the design."

Maybe I should just start brainstorming new applications for eyetracking technology.

Structure Plane

Finally, within the Structure Plane, I have been drawn to Visual Vocabulary since I began exploring UX.  The visual roadmap of a site with all the options, variables, and direction accounted for.  The closest approximation I could come up with in the architectural realm is space planning.  Now, space planning is a necessary element of design that many architects would scoff at or view themselves as above such menial work.  However, if a building is going to function properly, one of the most primary exercises should be a bubble diagram study of adjacencies.  Once this is completed, designers should enter into a day in the life exercise where they imagine themselves moving throughout the space.  This is all about discovering what works and what doesn't.  

Much in the same way, Visual Vocabulary is all about exploring the site before it's built.  All possibilities must be accounted for and then the implications of those possibilities must be designed.  I think that the main reason I am drawn to this tool is because of the need for a good story to exist for there to be good design.  There are so many avenues that design can lead down, but it is up to the designer to decide which is the best.  That best avenue can only be chosen when they journey is planned ahead of time.  It is no good to just see what happens.  The appropriate layout must accompany the proper narrative.  Therefore, it is essential to plan out the path for a site.  Whether a system architecture needs to be simple or complex, it can only be properly understood if it is diagrammed and mapped out.  More information on this process is available here.

John FerriganComment