A Basic Duality
Of course, there are more than just five elements of user experience, and as with any specialized field, this one has evolved a vocabulary all its own. To someone encountering the field for the first time, user experience can appear to be a complicated business. All these seemingly identical terms are thrown around: interaction design, information design, information architecture. What do they mean? Anything? Or are they just more meaningless industry buzzwords?
To further complicate matters, people will use the same terms in different ways. One person might use "information design" to refer to what another knows as "information architecture." And what's the difference between "interface design" and "interaction design?" Is there one?
Fortunately, the field of user experience seems to be moving out of this Babel-like state. Consistency is gradually creeping into our discussions of these issues. To understand the terms themselves, however, we should look at where they came from.
When the Web started, it was just about hypertext. People could create documents, and they could link them to other documents. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, created it as a way for researchers in the high-energy physics community, who were spread out all over the world, to share and refer to each other's findings. He knew the Web had the potential to be much more than that, but few others really understood how great its potential was.
People originally seized on the Web as a new publishing medium, but as technology advanced and new features were added to Web browsers and Web servers alike, the Web took on new capabilities. After the Web began to catch on in the larger Internet community, it developed a more complex and robust feature set that would enable Web sites not only to distribute information but to collect and manipulate it as well. With this, the Web became more interactive, responding to the input of users in ways that were very much like traditional desktop applications.
With the advent of commercial interests on the Web, this application functionality found a wide range of uses, such as electronic commerce, community forums, and online banking, among others. Meanwhile, the Web continued to flourish as a publishing medium, with countless newspaper and magazine sites augmenting the wave of Web-only "e-zines" being published. Technology continued to advance on both fronts as all kinds of sites made the transition from static collections of information that changed infrequently to dynamic, database-driven sites that were constantly evolving.
When the Web user experience community started to form, its members spoke two different languages. One group saw every problem as an application design problem, and applied problem-solving approaches from the traditional desktop and mainframe software worlds. (These, in turn, were rooted in common practices applied to creating all kinds of products, from cars to running shoes.) The other group saw the Web in terms of information distribution and retrieval, and applied problem-solving approaches from the traditional worlds of publishing, media, and information science.
This became quite a stumbling block. Very little progress could be made when the community could not even agree on basic terminology. The waters were further muddied by the fact that many Web sites could not be neatly categorized as either applications or hypertext information spacesa huge number seemed to be a sort of hybrid, incorporating qualities from each world.
To address this basic duality in the nature of the Web, let's split our five planes down the middle. On the left, we'll put those elements specific to using the Web as a software interface. On the right, we'll put the elements specific to hypertext information spaces.
On the software side, we are mainly concerned with tasksthe steps involved in a process and how people think about completing them. Here, we consider the site as a tool or set of tools that the user employs to accomplish one or more tasks.
On the hypertext side, our concern is informationwhat information the site offers and what it means to our users. Hypertext is about creating an information space that users can move through.