UX at Year X: An interview with Jesse James Garrett

Jesse James Garrett about service design, UX rock stars and much more

Adaptive Path co-founder and principal Jesse James Garrett’s accolades range from creating seminal works on user experience to coining the term AJAX. Ahead of his UX London presentation, he talked to us about The Elements of User Experience a decade on, how service design relates to user experience, and his pick of future UX rock stars.

Johnny Holland: It’s been a decade since you released the Elements of User Experience diagram. What’s it like looking back on it now, and would you change anything?

JJG's elements of user experience model

The Elements of User Experience diagram

Jesse James Garrett: There really isn’t much in Elements I’ve felt the need to change. Everything there is still important. I’ve been surprised by the durability of the Elements model, because I created it to solve a problem that seemed to be particular to that moment in the evolution of the field. Everybody had to explain everything about UX, because the practice was so new. What I didn’t count on was that ten years later, there would still be so many people to educate!

But even among experienced practitioners, I think it’s been a valuable touchstone, to establish a common frame of reference for discussions about our work. I love the various riffs on Elements people have put out over the years, from George Olsen in 2003 to Richard Dalton in 2007 to David Sherwin in 2010. Some people have thought I’d be upset by what they’ve done, but it’s actually really gratifying to see people pick it up and do their own thing with it. It’s a tool, it’s no good if it’s not useful to you, so you should reshape it to your purposes.

JH: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen for the UX discipline in the last decade?

JJG: We’ve had our ups and downs, for sure. The tech bust early in the decade saw a lot of people move on to other lines of work, and it took several years for the field to regain its momentum. But it’s astonishing what’s happened in the last few years, with so many new voices, new conferences, and new websites driving the dialogue in the field. I love the fact that we now have enough to talk about to sustain sites like Boxes and Arrows, Johnny Holland, UX Magazine, UX Matters… the list goes on and on.

The clients are more sophisticated. Sometimes, it’s because they’ve come up through UX — the field has been around long enough now that some people have made it into management positions. But even the clients without that background seem to have more sensitivity to UX issues. Business people are recognizing the strategic importance of the work we do. Not all of them, and not nearly as many as we’d like, but there are more out there all the time.

I think the phenomenal success Apple has had in the last ten years has been a double-edged sword for us. On one hand, we have business people who never before paid attention to UX sitting up and paying attention, because Apple is a company whose product strategy is driven entirely by the experience they want to deliver to users. It drives every product decision they make. But on the other hand, everybody thinks you have to have someone with the Steve Jobs magic to operate that way. But Jobs hasn’t been successful because of his design sensibility. He’s been successful because he’s built an experience-driven organization. And there’s no magic required to do that.

JH: You’ve been one of the leading people (and companies) in documenting and sharing insights related to UX with the community. How do you manage to integrate this in your daily business?

Jesse James Garret

JJG: I think there are three parts to it. The first, and by far most important, is what each of us does individually: simply paying attention to our work and asking ourselves, “Is there some broader lesson that can be drawn from this situation?” So we’re constantly looking at how problems and their solutions apply outside the immediate context.

Secondly, there’s what we do for each other at Adaptive Path, which is an ongoing culture of mutual encouragement. Even if you don’t notice your best ideas, the people around you are likely to, and we’re very fortunate to have a group of people genuinely interested and invested in seeing each other succeed. “You should blog that” is one of the most commonly heard phrases around our office.

The third part is what the organization does to keep that momentum going. We have a number of specific mechanisms for people to share work and ideas internally. Obviously, some clients and projects require that we firewall a team from the rest of the organization, but generally we encourage maximum openness across our project teams, and provide outlets such as open design sessions to foster sharing insights.

JH: Perhaps part of the appeal of Adaptive Path leading UX is that you’re still a small enough company – 40 people –  to make people believe they can carry out UX too. What are the challenges that smaller companies face with UX?

JJG: The challenge with just about everything in a smaller company is reconciling the gap between what you want to do and what you have the resources to do — without sacrificing your larger goals. UX in particular seems to get cut from project plans more readily than other things. But I think that has started to change, as more managers become sensitive to the importance of UX and become knowledgeable about ways to deliver effective UX within tight budgets, timelines, and resources.

JH: You stated at last year’s IA Summit that our field of work (whether you call it IA, UX, IxD) we seem to have a lack of language of critique. What needs to be done to change this?

JJG: We need to be able to talk, as a professional community, about what differentiates successful experience design from unsuccessful (or absent) experience design. In order to do that, we need frameworks for thinking about experience, describing its qualities, and evaluating it. Not just one framework, mind you — things will really start getting interesting when we have multiple frameworks to choose from.

I think the development of a language of critique has to spring from the practice of critique. Critique of experience design work is currently ad hoc, improvised, and specific to the context. We need ways to generalize these practices so experiences can be compared and contrasted across contexts. I suspect that all of this stuff sounds pretty esoteric to the average UX designer just trying to ship a product, but I think it can have a deep and meaningful effect on the day-to-day practice of user experience design.

JH: The words on everyone’s lips this year is ‘service design’. What’s your take on how it relates to user experience? Is service design vs user experience the new information architecture vs interaction design?

JJG: I think any distinction that you could draw between service design and user experience is purely academic. In practical terms, the overlap in the problems being solved, the methods applied to solving them, and the philosophy of practice is so huge that anything you could say was purely a service design issue or purely a user experience design issue would be an extreme edgecase. They may persist as separate areas of intellectual inquiry, but as fields of practice I think they’ll inevitably converge. So in that sense, SD vs. UX is the new IA vs. IxD.

JH: Your UX London talk is on engagement. Could you tell us something more about this talk?

JJG: As our practice at Adaptive Path has expanded beyond digital experiences to integrate products with services, or to develop completely non-digital experiences like retail environments, I’ve become more interested in the question of what makes an experience successful no matter what medium is used to deliver the experience. And I keep coming back to this notion of engagement as the one outcome we’re always driving toward.

JH: In the summary of your talk you mention that there are different modes of engagement we need to understand. Could you elaborate?

JJG: Well, this idea really originated in my thinking about the historical split between how people have viewed interaction design and how people have viewed information architecture. The interaction design viewpoint has been that behavior is paramount, that everything is subordinate to driving particular user actions. The information architecture perspective has been that cognition is what counts, and the key is to optimize designs for the way people think.

Of course, the truth is that neither aspect is paramount. Instead, these are just modes of engagement with a designed experience: engagement through action and engagement through cognition. And these modes (along with some others) must work together in an orchestrated fashion for the experience to be successful.

JH: Who are the names in the field we should keep an eye out for? Who are the new UX rock stars?

JJG: If I’m at a conference where Stephen Anderson is speaking, you can be guaranteed I’ll be in the room. I think Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler’s book A Project Guide to UX Design is one of the sharpest, clearest books on UX I’ve read in years. And I’ve lately been inspired by the insights coming from people like Richard Dalton, Cindy Chastain, and Karl Fast. And of course, I consider anyone at Adaptive Path a rock star — that’s why we hired them!

Note: special thanks to Vicky for helping me out with the interview.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

8 comments on this article

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  3. Seeing more interest and profile around UX and CX. Its great to see!

    Question is how to operationalize it and how to create cultures/environments to produce great experiences and UX leadership?

    What are the traits or soft skills required for great UX independent of job titles and levels in organisations?


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