Ben Ronning


3 Takeaways From The Elements of User Experience

I recently read Jesse James Garret's The Elements of User Experience. I wanted to share three of my most important take aways.

1. Design For the Intended Environment
Humans are pattern seekers. We look to our past experiences to help make sense of the present. In a lot of cases, this can be hugely advantageous. However, in The Elements of User Experience, Jesse James Garrett warns us about the dangers of using metaphors too literally, and how it can result in poor functionality.

I think of this every time I open a digital audio workstation (DAW). While the software is incredibly powerful, I feel I can’t take full advantage of it because the interface and interactions are so complicated. The metaphors and conventions borrowed from professional engineering studios don’t translate well to the limited screen real estate of the personal laptop; and while I have a sense of what the knobs are supposed to do, I have a hard time “twisting” a 2D widget.


The first time I used an iPod, however, there was no learning curve. I just got it. There was consistency throughout the design, and the way the buttons were shaped and laid out fed into my understanding of how the product worked. Apparently my experience wasn’t unique, because millions of other iPod owners shared similar stories and the interaction patterns of the product quickly became the gestural conventions for the devices we store in our pockets today. 

Apple could have repurposed the interface that people were familiar with from other music players, like the Walkman, but they had a deeper insight into how and where their users would be interacting with their product. By focusing on the conceptual models of the structure plane, Apple got it right and helped jumpstart the gestural revolution.


2. Design Should Run Deep

Ultimately conceptual models are a means for absorbing and understanding information, and Garrett’s model of the 5 Planes is a concise way to understand the elements of user experience. But the power of the model is only truly effective when it’s used as a whole.

In the last few years the Web has been the beneficiary of many powerful and opinionated design frameworks (ex. Bootstrap and Foundation) and style guides. This has made it massively easier to create digital products and services with a professional sheen, but little to no meaningful content or functionality. Understanding and adhering to the 5 Planes helps build intent and meaning into the product. Author Scott McCloud echoes this sentiment in his fantastic book Understanding Comics: when people “bite into” our shiny new products, we don’t want them to be hollow, but rather instilled with idea and purpose.

Image from Scott McCloud's   Understanding Comics

Image from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics

3. UX is Still Young
Garrett’s “Duality of the Web” is helpful in creating clarity and providing structure to the current mindset of the user experience community. But perhaps it’s an even better reminder of the evolving nature of UX.

Relative to the roles of most of our colleagues, UX is still a baby. Each role and responsibility is still being hashed out, and the way we talk about the craft is still in flux. My definition of “interaction design” might be my co-workers idea of “interface design”. This is important to keep in mind as we have discussions with other design professionals, and collaborate with others outside of the field. 

Ben Ronning