24 May, 2009

Talking About the Elements of User Experience (An Interview with Jesse James Garrett)

What is user experience and what does it mean exactly? How does it fit into usability, interaction design, user center design, and so forth?

"User experience" simply refers to the way a product behaves and is used in the real world. A positive user experience is one in which the goals of both the user and the organization that created the product are met. "Usability" is one attribute of a successful user experience, but usability alone does not make an experience positive for the user. Historically, product design and development has considered the mere existence of a particular feature as evidence that a user goal is fulfilled by the product -- with no attention paid to the experience the user has with the product while using the feature.

This is how we ended up with VCR clocks that no one can program. It all made sense to the engineers who put the product together, and it allowed management to check off "programmable clock" as a user need that had been met, but nobody thought to examine the problem from the perspective of the real-world use of the product. This bias toward internal thinking is why the method by which successful user experiences are created became known as "user-centered design". Previously, all we had was "engineering-centered design". Now we've got interaction design, information architecture, and other sub-disciplines to address the entire user experience.

"user experience" is often only used to describe user interactions with web sites. How can the term "user experience" be applied to other *business* and *interface* scenarios? What positive future implications does this have on the "usability" consulting field?

The term "user experience" certainly can be applied to a wide range of scenarios far beyond the Web. It's likely that we'll see the field of Web user experience gradually dovetail with practices in fields like industrial design (creating the user experience of a physical product) and environment design (creating the user experience of a physical space). We'll have a lot to contribute to that dialogue, but we'll have a lot to learn from these other disciplines as well. It won't happen overnight, though -- ten years seems like the shortest possible time it could take.

Could you briefly describe your ideal UX development process, and what roles would you consider important?

"Ideal" to my mind means "infinite time and money", which of course never really happens. But if I had that luxury, I'd want to spend a lot of time right up front understanding the problem we're trying to solve: understanding the business objectives, understanding the behavior and thinking of the users, understanding the competition. Then the usual stuff to get to launch: architecture, wireframes, design treatments. After that, rapid iteration: constantly refining the site in response to targeted inquiry into what aspects of the experience need work. Specific roles don't matter so much, as long as your team has the right combination of skills and experience to pull off the above.

How do you draw the line between the design of elements that are very obvious and clear to your target user and elements that may confuse him? Of course, provided that you don't have the money/time to do extensive user testing.

I guess another way to phrase this question would be: How can you know what will be familiar or confusing to people if you don't have the opportunity to ask them? I try to immerse myself in the world of information and interaction the user inhabits by figuring out what other information sources or software interfaces the user is accustomed to. For example, if you're designing for a narrow audience of professionals, are there trade publications you can turn to for insights into what will be familiar to those users? Are there other sites they are likely to have seen that deal with similar content or functionality? Getting inside your user's head often means trying to see the world through their eyes.

What efforts do you recommend to enhance the design or organization of actual content, the words or help that appear on screen, in order to enhance overall user experience? It is often the most torturous part of site development, time consuming, fraught with marketing tension and politics, and yet the ultimate thing that users are intended to find/read/use as part of their task completion is a site's on-screen content.

I absolutely agree that content is sorely neglected in most user experience development processes. As I've said before elsewhere, effective communication is central to our work, and nobody -- not even design school graduates, much as they claim otherwise -- nobody knows more about communicating effectively than content people. Get your content experts involved in the process early and often, even if it's an application project with allegedly minimal content requirements. The final user experience will be better for it.

Amazon's editorial reviews page for your book includes kind comments from Alan Cooper, Steve Krug, and Louis Rosenfeld. In what capacity do you know these gentlemen?

I've never met Alan Cooper. I asked my publisher to send him an advance copy, and he kindly agreed to share his reaction. Steve Krug and I cross paths at conferences a couple of times a year. Louis Rosenfeld and I are both involved in the ongoing activities of the Asilomar Institute, so naturally I hear from him pretty regularly.

Imagine a scenario where both schedule and budget is tight, but you can choose one of the following options: user test with a large group on core features, or user test with a small group on everything. Which would you choose and why?

I'd go with testing the small group on everything. The small group because diminishing returns set in pretty rapidly with user testing -- by the time you get to about the eighth user, you're getting very little new insight from each session. And everything because that will help you identify the problem areas to explore deeper the next time you come up with a little money for research.

I would be interested to hear of your experiences in dealing with cross-cultural websites and any solutions you've come up with (keeping in mind that we often don't have the luxury of expensive multi-templated websites catering for every language and culture!).

Here's the point where I shake my fist at John for encouraging hard questions. Bridging cultural divides is definitely a hard question. It's important to remember that you're not the only one facing this problem. Doing a thorough analysis of approaches taken by competing sites or simply other sites who have to accommodate the same audiences can help you understand what makes a particular solution effective. In addition, remember that you're not just limited to the Web -- other media such as magazines, radio, or television may offer alternatives you hadn't considered.

You keep saying several times in your book that we should not "leave any aspect of the user experience to chance". After seeing the response on SIGIA-L, do you wish you had qualified this statement?

Not at all. There is not a single user experience practitioner in the world who gets paid to leave things to chance. I'm not talking about robbing users of their freedom of choice; I'm talking about making sure that whatever the users experience as the result of the choices they make is a product of our conscious, explicit intent. That's the entire purpose of this field.