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An Interview with Jesse James Garrett

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Russ Unger interviews Jesse James Garrett about the new edition of The Elements of User Experience, what's changed since the first edition was released in 2002, why client work is still important to him, and the relationship between UX and the video game industry.
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Russ Unger: I’m pretty excited that the new edition of Elements of User Experience is out—the first edition was one of the first books I really connected with, and it’s great to see a refresh. What are some of the highlights in this version?

Jesse James Garrett: I’d say it’s more of a refinement than a reworking. As I described it to someone who asked me this question on Twitter, Han still shoots first—meaning that everything important about the first edition is still there, and anything new is there to support that, not to add some flashy bits that don’t contribute to the overall thrust of the book. But just as the domain of UX has grown, the book has grown along with it. Importantly, the book is not limited to the Web anymore. It’s also about mobile apps, desktop software, and ultimately the design of any product or service that delivers an experience to users.

Russ: Who will benefit the most from making this a part of their bookshelf?

Jesse: As always, this book is for people new to UX. Whether you want to be a UX designer or you just have to work with one, you need a framework and a vocabulary for talking and thinking through these issues. That’s what I aim to provide. I’m especially pleased with the places in the book where I think I found ways to simplify explanations and streamline the presentation of some ideas. Hopefully, that can make the book accessible to an even wider audience.

Russ: As much as the UX field continues to grow and expand, it seems that there are still a lot of people out there saying, “What is this UX?” and even some people saying “That’s UX? I do that!” Where are you getting a sense that is happening—who are the people who are starting to wake up to UX?

Jesse: I think that a lot of people think “user experience” is a buzzword used by executives that doesn’t have any practical meaning. It often isn’t until somebody works directly with a UX designer that they start to get the idea that there is a real field here, with real methods, principles, and measurable outcomes. Product managers, or others in product development organizations, are starting to understand the value of UX design as part of their processes.

Russ: You’re still actively involved in client work—why is that, and why is that important to you?

Jesse: At Adaptive Path, we talk about our work as a practice. Implicit in that is the idea that you are learning from what you do. If you never reflect on what you’re doing, if you never formulate your own sense of what works and what doesn’t and why, you’re not practicing, you’re just working. But at the same time, ideas without practice mean nothing. It’s the application of ideas that gives them weight and validates them. So you have to do both.

Russ: It’s been nearly a decade since Elements of UX was released. Rather than trying to guess what’s up in the next ten years, it would be great to get an understanding of how different things are today than they were a decade ago and how that is manifested in the new edition.

Jesse: Well, it’s important to remember what the Web, and the rhetoric about the Web, was like when I wrote the first edition in 2002. Everyone brought their own lens to any discussion of the Web, and that made dialogue very difficult—people were just talking past each other. For example, at the time a big struggle in lots of organizations was whether marketing or IT should own the Web site. Each side had its own way of thinking about the problem and the medium itself. I think Elements came along at just the right time to bring some clarity to those conversations. These days, of course, we don’t talk about marketing vs. IT. It’s about integrating the two in the context of product management and development. So in the new edition I don’t have to do as much to accommodate all these different models.

Russ: There are a lot of interesting views on how important UX is to just about any sort of process when it comes to products, websites, etc. Do you think that “some UX is better than none”? Why or why not?

Jesse: I don’t think we have to think of UX as demanding a certain kind of process. People get so hung up on particular activities, and feel like if you’re doing certain things then you can say you are doing UX, and if you’re doing something else then you’re not. UX is about mindset—making strategic decisions about every aspect of the product or service based on its impact on the experience. And that mindset can be applied to any kind of process.

Russ: You’ve been pretty vocal about breaking down the walls between the disciplines in the past several years. How do you address the east-coast west-coast rivalries in the book? Related: What’s your favorite gang sign?

Jesse: Well, I didn’t really think this book was the place to go into a lot of depth about how tribalism undermines the development and progress of the field. It’s not all that relevant to the book’s audience of people new to UX, and definitely not relevant to my goal of introducing them to the subject. That said, my point of view—that UX is one field and not two or three or seven—is a manifestation of my general sense that holism is the most effective way to approach this work, and that theme is inevitably present throughout the book. So my favorite gang sign would have to be a peace sign—which, of course, easily converts to a middle finger when required.

Russ: If you were stuck on a deserted island with only one copy of A Project Guide to UX Design, which chapter would you read the most, and why?

Jesse: Whichever one is most likely to help me figure out how to catch fish.

Russ: You know there are many of us who are very clearly taking some pages from your book (well, books, now), as well as paying attention to what Adaptive Path is up to, but who are you learning from as you continue to grow and expand your knowledge in the UX field?

Jesse: I learn the most from the people I work with. Not just my colleagues at Adaptive Path, but the people we collaborate with on the client side as well. That’s a big part of why I prefer being a consultant to working in-house. It’s the only way to get that diversity and richness of viewpoints, philosophies, and working approaches.

Russ: What do you want to be doing when you’re done with all of this UX stuff, anyway?

Jesse: Oh, I don’t think I’m ever going to be done with it. There’s too much to do! I might not always be making Web sites, but I think I’ll always be working on experiences of one kind or another.

Russ: As a parent, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from that experience that you can apply to UX?

Jesse: Patience. You really do have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk. But you should enjoy and celebrate every accomplishment along the way.

Russ: UX and the video game industry. You know you’ve got a bunch of opinions about this, so what is the one thing you love or are frustrated with the most?

Jesse: The idea that UX design is related to game design is so often repeated that it’s practically a cliche. But the weird thing is that almost no game designers see the connection. Every year, we try to get more game designers to speak at UX Week, and every year we struggle to find people working in that industry who understand why we might want to have them at our conference. If more game designers came to UX conferences, we might be able to learn not only what game design can teach UX, but whether UX has anything to teach game design in return.

Russ: What are the conferences that you like to go to—as an attendee—and what are the session types that interest you the most? Where will we see in you in 2011?

Jesse: Of course, everybody loves SXSW, though it’s so huge now that it’s hard not to get overwhelmed by it. I’m doing a session there in 2011 reflecting on ten years of Adaptive Path. We launched the company there in 2001, so it will be fun to go back to celebrate this anniversary.

Russ: The new edition of Elements of User Experience looks really great, and I think it’s a great book for aspiring UX Designers, as well as those who have been practicing for awhile. What are some of the other resources that you would recommend?

Jesse: There is so much evident care and craft in the Rosenfeld Media books—I think they now occupy the place O’Reilly books held 15 years ago as definitive works. I think Kim Goodwin’s book is terrific, though I kind of wish it had been published as 10 little books instead of one gigantic one. And for years, people have asked me what book they should read when they finish Elements and I haven’t known what to say. Now I finally have a good answer: A Project Guide to UX Design!

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