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Using the Elements

Few sites fall exclusively on one side of this model or the other. Within each plane, the elements must work together to accomplish that plane's goals. For example, information design, navigation design, and interface design jointly define the skeleton of a site. The effects of decisions you make about one element from all other elements on the plane is very difficult. All the elements on every plane have a common function—in this example, defining the site's skeleton—even if they perform that function in different ways.

This model, divided up into neat boxes and planes, is a convenient way to think about user experience problems. In reality, however, the lines between these areas are not so clearly drawn. Frequently, it can be difficult to identify whether a particular user experience problem is best solved through attention to one element instead of another. Can a change to the visual design do the trick, or will the underlying navigation design have to be reworked? Some problems require attention in several areas at once, and some seem to straddle the borders identified in this model.

The way organizations often delegate responsibility for user experience issues only complicates matters further. In some organizations, you will encounter people with job titles like information architect or interface designer. Don't be confused by this. These people generally have expertise spanning many of the elements of user experience, not just the specialty indicated by their title. It's not necessary to have a member of your team who is a specialist in each of these areas; instead, you only have to ensure that someone is responsible for thinking about each of these issues.

A couple of additional factors go into shaping the final user experience that you won't find covered in detail here. The first of these is content. The old saying (well, old in Web years) is that "content is king" on the Web. This is absolutely true—the single most important thing most Web sites can offer to their users is content that those users will find valuable.

Users don't visit Web sites to experience the joy of navigation. The content that is available to you (or that you have resources to obtain and manage) will play a huge role in shaping your site. In the case of our bookstore site example, we might decide that we want the users to be able to see cover images of all the books we sell. If we can get them, will we have a way to catalog them, keep track of them, and keep them up to date? And what if we can't get photos of the book covers at all? These content questions are essential to the ultimate user experience of the site.

Second, technology can be just as important as content in creating a successful user experience. In many cases, the nature of the experience you can provide your users is largely determined by technology. In the early days of the Web, the tools to connect Web sites to databases were fairly primitive and limited. As the technology has advanced, however, databases have become more widely used to drive Web sites. This in turn has enabled more and more sophisticated user experience approaches, such as dynamic navigation systems that change in response to the way users move through the site. Technology is always changing, and the field of user experience always has to adapt to it. Nevertheless, the fundamental elements of user experience remain the same.

The rest of this book looks at the elements, plane by plane, in greater detail. We'll take a closer look at some of the tools and techniques commonly used to address each element. We'll see what the elements on each plane have in common, what makes each one different, and how they affect each other to create the total user experience.

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