2: Elements Turns 20

In which we learn more of Peter’s recent adventures in design leadership, and we reflect on 20 years of Jesse’s Elements of User Experience.


Peter: Let me do it.

Jesse: All right. You got it.

[theme music]

Peter: Welcome to “Finding Our Way,” the podcast where Peter and Jesse welcome you on their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. As always, I’m Peter Merholz and with me is Jesse James Garrett.

Jesse: Hello, Peter.

Peter: Hi, Jesse. On today’s show, we’re going to follow up a little bit on our first episode. Jesse realized he had some questions for me about some of my work after Adaptive Path that we didn’t get to, that he was wondering about. And then we’re going to be talking about Jesse’s “Elements of User Experience” diagram, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in March.

Jesse: Hooray. So at the end of the last episode, you were talking about that word balance and the need for balance between the design perspective and the business perspective, in the work of the design leader, and that they often are called upon to wrangle these creative energies, within a larger organizational context.

So I’m curious about when you left Adaptive Path at the end of 2011, what were the problems that you felt like needed solving or that were really interesting or compelling to you, out there in the world as you were figuring out what your next step was after Adaptive Path.

Peter: Yeah. So I left Adaptive Path, and I left consulting because I felt that the energy for design and user experience has shifted in house. You were seeing more and more companies building in-house design teams, but also kind of, I had felt a frustration, and I think you’ve shared it, right, working in a consultant capacity where you deliver great work that never sees the light of day. And I realized I want it to be inside the organization that is responsible ultimately for delivering these experiences and to be there when those thousand little decisions are made as something is getting delivered.

And it’s those thousand little decisions that slowly but inexorably blunt the quality of the work that is ultimately shipped. And I realized I would be more useful in-house protecting design, protecting the work, protecting the quality. That that would be a better location for me. 

Jesse: Right, right. So you had been working as a consultant obviously for many years. You felt sort of stymied in terms of what you could deliver from outside, and do you want to be better positioned to clear a path for success for design, it sounds like.

Peter: Yeah, I mean, my–. So I’ve always had a personal mission and that personal mission evolved in bits and pieces, but tends to return to making the world safe for better user experiences. And I realized that in order for me to live out that mission, I needed to go where the decisions were being made that affected those user experiences, `and that just isn’t in a consulting capacity. You can influence them in a consulting capacity. You can try to get the ball rolling, and, and get good positive energy into the process. But really when we’re talking about delivery, it’s, again, all those little decisions that are made along the way, all the compromises you make to satisfy timing requirements, to satisfy engineering limitations, to satisfy regulatory or compliance needs, whatever it is, there’s all these things that, as a consultant, you’re not aware of, you don’t have access to, you’re not around to help think through, typically. And so if I was going to uphold my personal mission of making the world safe for user experience, I needed to go in house and do them. You know, I recognized that I was sacrificing a vision, sacrificing kind of that big, bold ideas, right? ‘Cause when you’re working in-house, you tend to be more incremental. You tend to be more iterative. Whereas in a consulting capacity, you’re usually brought in to think big and bold. And I was going to be sacrificing that top end of my creative potential in the interest of making sure that the things that actually get launched don’t suck. And that was the trade off I was not only willing to make, I was eager to make.

Jesse: What constituted the kind of environment that you were able to learn from most effectively? What were you going after, in terms of what was going to drive your growth?

Peter: I was headhunted for a role as the VP of global design at Groupon.

And Groupon was a company that had actually interested me for a while, even though at the time their media presence was really negative, right? It was when there were all these news stories about how these small local businesses were being overwhelmed by a thousand people showing up with the groupon, on the same day, and they couldn’t deliver on the demand that the Groupon had realized. And so there’s a lot of negative press around Groupon at the time. But, I have a passion for neighborhoods, local businesses, small businesses, that kind of thing. And so when I found out about that opportunity, I was intrigued.

I didn’t know what I was stepping into. You never really do until you’re inside. The leadership at Groupon were a lot of people who had been at Amazon and they brought many of those Amazon ways of working to Groupon. So it was a trial by fire on that kind of two-pizza-team approach to product development ’cause that was the Amazon way that they were bringing into Groupon. I got to oversee both product and brand design, and so I was able to take on a more holistic view of design. And then me being me, I was able to kind of treat this as a bit of an experiment. It was a Petri dish that I could try things out with because at the time, there were no kind of standards and practices really. They had grown so fast that there was little rationale behind how the company was organized internally.

Where I ended up developing a lot of my thinking around organization design in-house was the work I did at Groupon trying to figure out, How do I structure my teams to deliver coherent, consistent user experiences, in an environment that otherwise wasn’t really set up to do that. And what I ended up doing was bringing a lot of what we had learned at Adaptive Path in terms of What does it take to deliver quality design? And I tried to figure out how can I abstract some of those principles and approaches, and then embed them into this more, quote unquote tech company, Silicon Valley way of working.

Jesse: So it’s interesting to think that, the team at Groupon had to be in a certain shape in order for you to even really be able to realize that this set of problems existed for the organization because it’s like if they had brought you in to build a team from scratch, you would have had a sense of what to do and you would have built up something new.

On the other end of the spectrum, if they had had a mature design team, a mature design function in place, with a leader, with a well-defined role in place that you could just inherit and drop into, that would have shifted your focus in a different direction.

Peter: That’s right. When I joined, I inherited a group of about, at least on the product design side, about 12 men in their mid-20s. And having worked at Adaptive Path and other design contexts where I’d always had a gender equity in design, I had always had a range of ages, it was very bizarre stepping into this.

This is October 2012 when I joined. So, end of 2012, beginning of 2013, and that was when I was first made aware of this job title, Product Designer, and that’s how they did it at Facebook, and at Facebook, designers own the design and there’s one designer working with a product manager and some engineers, and that’s the way we should do it, is what I was hearing from some people.  And when I was looking at that, I’m like, that doesn’t make sense to me.

One designer can’t do all the things that need to be done well, and I found myself just kind of, pushing back against what was becoming accepted wisdom. And so my challenge and my opportunity as we were growing the design team was, how do we allow designers to  have their emphases right?

Not every designer is going to be great at everything. Some designers are going to be stronger at interaction, and some at visual design and some at IA, they can be great at one thing, and pretty good at a bunch of things, but they’re not going to be great at everything. So how do we get designers working together in teams, like we had at Adaptive Path, right? Where you’d have two, three, four designers on a team with complementary skill sets. How do we do something like that internally? Became kind of my mantra, my thinking, my approach. And so my team at Groupon was, was basically built on a series of teams, that we’re meant to have this type of spread of skills in that they were meant to work together and collaborate on the designs that they were delivering.

And then the challenge there though is that product development was happening in these two-pizza teams, or think about Spotify-style squads, right? Product development is happening, with a product owner and a group of engineers on a fairly small problem or a feature. And so I didn’t want a designer embedded on those teams. I wanted a group of designers working across these features. If I’m at Groupon, I’m engaged in a shopping experience. That shopping experience is hitting a bunch of these feature teams. I want my design to make sure that that experience is coherent.

And that was the fundamental difference between how I’m working at Groupon, and how, say, things worked at Facebook, right? At Facebook, there was no expectation of coherence across products, ’cause if you dipped into the newsfeed and then you dipped into messenger and then you dipped into photos, that wasn’t a flow, right? It was this portfolio of apps. At Groupon, there’s a flow, there’s a journey that you’re on and I need to make sure that journey is coherent. And so that was my operating principle. And what led me to shape the teams at Groupon the way I did, which was not typical, right? I had to kind of invent it,  drawing from my experience with Adaptive Path and how design teams work, and then figuring out how can I hook that into how a contemporary product development organization operates.

Jesse: I think it must have been a real challenge for you to, confront Silicon Valley orthodoxy in that way, especially when you’re up against the culture that is, I don’t want to say eager, but definitely ready to marginalize design, and definitely feels the gravitational pull of giving all of the power back to the engineers.

And so I guess I’m imagining a lot of ideological evangelism on your part, with your peers, just to create space for them to go from, you know, from the zero designers per team to something like four designers per team.

Peter: Right. Right. I was fortunate that most of my interactions and relationships were with product leaders and they were just grateful that a grownup had come in who had a vision for how this could work and could see it through. And so, understanding their concerns, making sure they knew they could reach out to me directly and immediately to address those concerns if something did come up, but just saying, “Hey, this is how we’re going to do it. Trust me. Let’s try it out.” The primary pushback I got, at least initially, was from my team.

Right, I mentioned I had all these kind of cowboys in their mid-20s and they loved this maverick product designer role and, and mindset that they’re the designer and that they wield this special magical power within their squads when it comes to design. And I was moving away from that. I’m like, no, you’re not going to be the person, the owner, you’re going to be part of a team that’s working together. And some of my designers really reacted negatively to that. They liked working alone. They liked being the point person for design. And what ended up happening is those folks left, and that’s pretty typical. I’ve seen over and over again when a new leader comes in, some percentage of the existing team will leave, and that makes sense. The new leader has a different way of working, and then the people who are there are going to realize, like, “Oh, that’s not how I want to work. I came because of how it was before.” And that’s changing. And especially in Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of fluidity and mobility when it comes to work.

And so people who don’t want something, they, they move on. But I was, I was easily able to, replace them, and beyond, with folks who did understand this way of working. Since leaving Adaptive Path, my year and a half with Groupon was probably the most informative and the greatest learning opportunity I had as a design executive. 

Jesse: When you were at AP, I feel like your focus was really on developing a robust design practice, and that was the orientation, it sounds like, you took forward into these executive leadership roles, and then through those experiences, that evolved into a more of an organizational orientation.

Peter: So while I was at AP, I was more involved with practice, but, you’ll recall, a lot of work done trying to figure out the architecture of AP project teams, creative lead, program lead, what their distinct roles and responsibilities were, what it meant to be a practitioner on those teams, as you and I became executive sponsors, what our relationship to those teams was, and I kind of had led that because as we grew AP, we had more and more people who wanted to be. creative leads, and we hadn’t defined the role well, the role, up for the longest time, the role was, well, however, a founder does it, as more and more people were doing it, we needed to be very explicit about what that role entailed. And so, I had done a bunch of org design at AP. When I went in house at a place like Groupon, I was still aware of process. And one of the ways I was able to make that realized was through whom I hired, right? I made sure to hire people who had a user centered design background. All the folks who I’d inherited were these product designers who had kind of taught themselves on the job, but had been very much, for lack of a better word, and this is going to sound dismissive, kind of these Dribbble designers, right?

They were really good at polished shots, but they weren’t really good at thinking about  structures and systems of interactive media. And so, there was almost no user centricity. There was a small user research team, but they had largely been doing heuristic evaluations. And so from a methodology standpoint, when I came on, I made sure to bring on people who understood human-centered practices and processes, and I kind of let them do what they needed to do in their context.

As a VP, your job is organizational, especially as you’re trying to recruit and hire and scale and grow. And that was when I realized there weren’t any resources for a design leader, scaling a team. You looked out on the web, you looked out in the world, and there was nothing for me to provide me a guide for how to do this. And that was when I realized there was something here to continue to pursue.

So, so while I was mindful of practice and yes, at AP I had been very, very practice and process and methodology-oriented, I also had that understanding of organization. And then in my role as the design executive, I delegated the practice leadership to the people I hired and focused on the organizational design in my role.

Jesse: I think that, sometimes it’s a question of scale. Sometimes it’s a question of the level of maturity of the organization and sometimes it’s a question of the culture of leadership of an organization in terms of how close the design leader stays to the design work over time.

Awesome. Thank you so much.  

[theme music]

Peter: March 2020 is an interesting time, a special time, because it is the 20th anniversary of your diagram of “The Elements of User Experience.”

If you go to, I believe, let me see if I can do the URL off the top of my head, http://jjg.net/ia/elements.pdf, you can see, “The Elements of User Experience” PDF, and it will say on it that it was published the 30th of March, 2000. And so, we wanted to, as we’re kicking off this podcast, we wanted to recognize this milestone. It was actually, that diagram was core to how you and I went beyond just knowing one another as bloggers and started to become professional colleagues and on the path to working together. How did the Elements emerge and what were you hoping to accomplish with it?

Jesse: Well, you know, it’s interesting to reflect on because the state of web design at that time, at the turn of the century was such that there was a great deal of attention paid to aesthetics and to technology, but the practices that eventually would become known as user experience, we’re just sort of starting to bubble up around the edges. And, this was just starting to become sort of a legitimate job. At this point in my career, I had been doing content work on the web, writing, editing, managing editorial teams, and had started to see where content and design issues intersect and had transitioned into what was at the time called an information architecture role. And so I was the first information architect hired into a traditional, to the extent that there were traditions in web design consulting at that time, a traditional web design consultancy, which was very, very much modeled on a graphic design consultancy.

It was very much how they structured the work that they did. And so I had to explain to a lot of people who had a more sort of traditional design background, what kind of work I did and how it fit into the larger picture of what we were delivering to organizations.

And I found myself having to have this conversation over and over again, really just to sort of justify my existence at the table, and found myself in need of a visual aid to help myself understand the relationship between these ideas and to help communicate that relationship, and the elements model emerged out of that over the course of a few months of sort of noodling on it in late 99 and early 2000.

Peter: So your initial desire, what you were hoping to accomplish was simply to help your colleagues understand what it was you do.

Jesse: Well, yeah. And hopefully to help the organization be able to communicate to clients my value so that we had a clear shared understanding of what we were trying to accomplish and how we all participated.

Peter: You release it, it catches on within a web design and user experience community, it gives you an opportunity to write a book that you’ve written a couple of editions for, based on the diagram, where you can flesh out the thinking behind it in greater detail.

It’s now 2020, and people still use it. It is still, you still see it, it’s used in courses, I’m wondering what has most surprised you about the longevity of that diagram? If anything? Maybe you’re like, Nope, I expected this to have a 20 year life span…

Jesse: Oh no. I mean, I–But…

Peter: If you didn’t, what, what, if anything, surprises you about its continued relevance?

Jesse: You know, one reason that I put a date on it so prominently on the original diagram was that I expected it to change. And, I expected to want to, iterate and evolve it. But I got it out there and, you know, so what happened was, I had been using it internally, and then I sent it to you, and you were like, “Hey, this looks pretty cool. Can I share it with some friends?” And I’m like, “Sure.” And then the next week we went to the first IA Summit. And somehow everybody there had already seen it. So it had kind of already taken on a life of its own before I even really got a chance to think about like, how I might want to, you know, change it.

And then once it was out, I really felt like I shouldn’t mess with it too much. What has been surprising to me, is that, with very few changes, somehow it continues to speak to how people see and understand this work, all these years later, even though the work itself is dramatically different.

Peter: How does it remain relevant? So this comes out, it’s a web world. It’s still a, I think largely, CRT world, we’re not that far removed from 8-bit Netscape, color cube, dial-up web, right? And it’s not a broadband world yet by any stretch.

And now we’ve got mobile, we’ve got emerging platforms, everyone has a high speed connection in their pocket. Yet somehow it remains relevant. And I’m wondering what you attribute that to, and if you’ve ever considered updating it, given all these kind of technological evolutions.

Jesse: I haven’t felt a need to update it. I think, in part, it’s not in my nature to want to spend a lot of time dwelling on things that I’ve done already. My inclination would be to make something new rather than going back and trying to continue to sort of stretch and extend the old thing to fit whatever has changed.

Okay. So my philosophy has always been that, Elements has a life of its own, and that life is going to have its own cycle that I can’t really do anything about. And, it’s up to other people as to whether or not Elements, you know, stays alive, as long as they continue to find it useful. 

Peter: Right. What impact did you hope to have, developing this, this model, this diagram, this framework for thinking about user experience?

Jesse: I wish I could say it was that strategic. I think you have to separate the diagram from the book in some ways in that they are slightly different tools. That are created to meet slightly different needs. The diagram is really something that you would sit down with somebody and use as a tool. Whereas the book exists more to, sort of empower and enlighten the designer. 

And so in terms of big picture impact, it’s trying to empower as many designers as possible. But again, the thing got away from me so quickly that I don’t feel like I am really the one driving the boat here.

Peter: So there was this need in the late 90s / early 2000s as more and more people are recognizing they need this type of work done. There’s folks who are like, “You don’t really understand what you’re getting into. Let me, let me make sure you understand kind of the breadth and depth of the situation here.” All right.

And just simply providing that kind of map of the territory. You thought you were just living on the city block, but it turns out there’s this whole neighborhood around you that affects what you’re doing and you need to be familiar with.

Jesse: You know, I think Elements was very much a product of its time for something that has turned out to be as enduring as it has. I think that it would be very difficult for something like this now to have the kind of impact that this had, at that time, there is just so much stuff now. It’s really, it’s kind of hard to imagine a diagram taking the field by storm at this point, which makes it even stranger to reflect that, that ever happened at all. 

I have these experiences all the time with strangers, because of the book. I was in a parking lot here in Oakland about, mm, three, four weeks ago, loading groceries into the back of my car, and a woman, black woman probably in her mid-thirties approached me in the parking lot, and she had her like six-year-old little girl with her.

And she walked up to me and she asked if I was me and I told her that I was, and she thanked me for the book and thank me for the impact that the book had on her as she was trying to find her place in the world. And something in the book spoke to her and gave her a direction. And, now she’s leading a design team, and having that experience over and over again has been an extraordinary gift. Yeah. To see the impact that it’s made on individual people in their lives as they’re finding a sense of direction and a sense of purpose through the way that I have articulated this set of problems in this set of ways of thinking about it.

That’s been far and away the best part of all of it.

Peter: I realized that I’ve been emphasizing using the diagram because that’s what I have a relationship with much more than the book,how evergreen has the book proven to be, and is that something that 10 years after the second edition, do you get a sense that people are still buying it? The people are still finding it relevant? Tell me a little bit about that journey with the book.

Jesse:  The book is doing great. It sells a very consistent, sort of steady, number of copies every year. Entirely accidentally, it turns out that the framework of elements is a great introductory text for a UX program. So, many people find themselves reading this book in school, as they are first exploring this career path, which is how it’s been able to have that kind of impact. And then they keep it, and they take it with them and they refer back to it and they bring it to their jobs and they recommend it to their coworkers and all of this stuff.

So, I can’t really speculate as to the breadth of impact of either the book or the diagram, but I will say that I feel like the book has probably had a deeper impact on people.

Peter: What has been the most common legitimate criticism that you’ve received? Either of the diagram or the book that you would like to address now.

Jesse: Well, you know, it, it always smarts for me when the content people look at the diagram and say, what about content? Because I’m a content guy, you know, as I said, my roots are in content, and there are many, many considerations involved in content strategy that I would not attempt to put into this diagram. 

And I think they do have a legitimate complaint in that it’s not comprehensive.

Peter: But, it looks,  as I’m looking at the diagram right now, there’s something almost Kubrickian about it, right? It’s symmetric. It’s evenly weighted.It feels so whole and internally consistent that it doesn’t really invite, like, “How do I engage with it?” I just receive it.

Jesse: Yeah. Well, that’s true. I mean, there have been many people who have done, you know, rifts or elaborations or extensions, of the model. There are people who have, like, seven layer versions and nine layer versions and stuff… 

Peter: No kidding.

Jesse: Yeah, yeah. I, I don’t, I, you know, there’s, I, I have seen so much of that stuff flow by over the years, so many student projects. So many conference poster sessions many of them really smart and interesting and thoughtful, some of them a little sort of, overenthusiastic perhaps.

Peter: I mentioned Kubrickian right. And now thinking about the monolith, right. It feels like just this perfect jewel that you can look at it, but don’t touch.

Jesse: Yeah. Well, you know, honestly, it feels a little bit like that to me too. I mean, it does sometimes feel like Elements is kind of a thing that happened to me.  And having made this sort of perfect, hermetically sealed little structure. I don’t know that I can crack it open any easier than anybody else could, you know? 

Peter: That’s fair. That’s fair. You know, I remember talking to you probably pretty early on when we were working together, and I remember you saying like, “This is just how I see things,” which is not how I work.

I’m a very verbal person. I tend to process initially through writing and if I diagram, it’s not a highly visual diagram. It’s at best, maybe a two by two here or there. But I got the sense that your initial mode of analysis as you look at the world around you, there was just a kind of visual information processing that was going on there. Do you still find that, that, visualizing mode that you’ve have had, does that still come to bear? Do you still see these things in pictures? I guess that’s another way of saying, are we to expect to any thing like that anytime soon?

Are you working on any models?

Jesse: “When are you going to make another one?”

Peter: Yeah. Not that specifically, but, ‘cause I’m guessing you’re trying to make sense of the world around you and the way you do that is through these visualizations. How is that going right now, if at all?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean, I do tend to use a lot of diagrams in my work. Sometimes they are more useful to me than they are to the people around me. 

I Understand the relationships between ideas geometrically. When I am working through a problem, I am often working with abstractions that had been made concrete, in a visual way in some way, and I, this is not uncommon, I mean, this is a way of working that’s familiar, I think, to a lot of people who do design work. And so it’s always naturally going to be a part of what I do.

I do think that the spirit of Elements, which is, tools for conversation, tools for creating shared understanding, tools for creating a common language. I mean, we hadn’t really talked about the way in which this work at the time didn’t have an overarching label. Before Elements. A lot of these various terms were used in muddy ways.

You may remember the three conflicting definitions of information design that were floating around circa 1999. At least three. There was a lot of muddiness in terms of the terminology…

Peter: Well, I’m glad all that terminology stuff has been cleared up now.

Jesse: [Laughing]  It gave us a place to move forward from. And I think that is a theme that continues for me is trying to find ways to crystallize and instantiate, our current understanding of things to give us something to push off of and something to move forward with as we continue finding our way.

Peter: Is that your sign that you need to sign off?

Jesse: Well we have about 90 seconds.

Peter: Well this is great. I actually learned some stuff I didn’t know about the diagram inandyour process and experience resonates a lot with me. I think if there is a lesson to be learned and it’s one that you, and I, I think,  have preached for years, is, share, just share with the world the things that are rattling around in your head that you might think are really only relevant to you.

And many of them will only be relevant to you, but occasionally something will, get out there and really catalyze and crystallize with a broad swath of people, and honestly help move things forward. 

Jesse: It’s how we move forward together.

Peter: Yeah, exactly, as we find our way together. So on that note, that’ll wrap up this episode of Finding Our Way. As before, we are eager to hear from you. We are easy to find. I’m @peterme on Twitter. Jesse’s @jjg on Twitter. You can go to the website. We will have an email address there.

We would love to hear from you. We would love to hear what you are thinking about what we’re sharing, other stuff that you would like us to share,  especially here at the outset of what we’re doing, as we’re finding our way to finding our way. So, with that, thank you Jesse, and, goodbye.

Peter: A minor, slow motion, anxiety attack. That pretty much lasted through the evening a little bit into my sleep. So I’m great. How are you?

Jesse: Oh, I, I, you know, I don’t have your emotional investment in the NBA, but, I had a similar experience last night, of,  yeah, just sort of this mounting helplessness, that, I decided to burn off by going to Safeway and, finding out what kinds of things, they might have that I might want to have around. So I got myself some toilet paper and some paper towels and some acetaminophen, and I came home feeling better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s