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Book review - The Elements of User Experience

 ·  ☕ 4 min read


Title: The Elements of User Experience

Author: Jesse James Garrett

How I learned about it: Recommended in a couple places, on Hacker News and reddit, I don’t remember where I saw it specifically. This is a pretty well-known UX book.

Would I recommend: A lot of the blurbs about this book recommend it as a first book to read about user experience. I disagree: it talks too briefly about too many concepts, and if you’re totally unfamiliar with all of them, you’ll be completely lost. But as long as you have some background in the field, this is a super useful book that gives a big-picture idea of how to build experiences from the bottom up, and everyone involved in UX should read it eventually, maybe as a second or third text.

Book structure

After a couple introductions, the book discusses five “planes” of user experience, one plane per chapter. The chapters are organized from the bottom upwards, and your focus when designing around these planes should also be organized in that direction. The chapters about planes are:

  • Chapter 3 - The “Strategy” plane
  • Chapter 4 - The “Scope” plane
  • Chapter 5 - The “Structure” plane
  • Chapter 6 - The “Skeleton” plane
  • Chapter 7 - The “Surface” plane

(Note the alliteration!)

Finally, there is an eighth chapter called “The Elements Applied” that discusses things like actively making decisions, dividing labor within your organization, and user testing.

General comments

The Elements of User Experience describes a complete, bottom-up approach to designing a product, from concept (strategy) to graphic design of the user interface (surface). Through the entire stack, the product is divided into two parts: “product as functionality” and “product as information” (see page 27 for an uncluttered diagram). Further divisions are made within each plane (p. 29). As the author continually points out, decisions made at lower levels will ripple up through the stack, and users will feel the effects of poor decisions made early on.

The Strategy and Scope planes are foundational and help you define requirements. The Structure plane is kinda like defining your database schema, but in more concrete terms and user-facing. Here, the author discusses using a controlled vocabulary, which is especially important if you’re working with Semantic/structured data. (We actually have one example of a strict, documented controlled vocabulary on Leaguepedia, for news items. Our news sentences are now automatically constructed, so it’s a bit unnecessary for humans to use it and has been for a couple years, but we used to use it as a source of truth when our sentences were manually written out.)

The planes that you most frequently interact with as a wiki administrator or web developer are the Skeleton and Surface planes. Prior to reading this book I didn’t really think of much of a difference between the two of them, maybe “Skeleton” was “the mspaint mockup” and “Surface” was “the final product” but that was it; however, they really are quite different. Choices of page layout, along with navigational elements that connect the parts of the structure together comprise the Skeleton plane. What information to include in an infobox (hint: not that much!) would go here as well. The surface plane is then theming, contrast, branding, etc. For more concrete advice about the surface plane, I suggest you read Refactoring UI (really, it’s a wonderful book).

As I mentioned above, the book rather glosses over a lot of concepts. Everything mentioned is defined at least to some extent, but most of the definitions are very brief and could be elaborated on for pages and pages or even an entire chapter. For this reason, the book is deceptively short - you will likely want to do a lot of further reading, especially if you haven’t read many UX books before and/or are new to the field. So while you could probably read it in a day - it’s only 160 pages with large print and a lot of (very pretty) illustrations, I’d budget more like a week and spend the time to read wikipedia articles about concepts you’re not already familiar with.

That said, if you have only one day available, and want to read a UX book, this one is well worth your time. It’s clearly written and opinionated, and it covers a huge amount of information. And you can always take notes for further reading later on.

Further reading

UX, in general:

The Skeleton plane:

The Surface plane:

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River is a developer most at home in MediaWiki and known for building Leaguepedia. She likes cats.

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