Jesse James Garrett

, the man who coined the term ‘Ajax’ and president of Adaptive Path, has been talking to us about usability and the user experience. It makes for a great read.

Jesse’s book, The Elements of User Experience, is one of the most widely read books on user-centred design, and he was recently named as one of the top ten user experience experts in an E-consultancy survey.

Here, we speak to him about the psychological background to web design, the pros and cons of behavioural targeting and Ajax, and why he thinks Amazon and eBay’s usability has gone “astray”.


What’s the essence of your approach to usability and user experience?

We tend to think of usability as the foundation of the work that we do. It sets the minimum requirement for a design to be successful, so if you’re not doing usability work you won’t know what that requirement is. Philosophically, that’s where we come from.

I think a lot of people look at usability as the ultimate end goal of the design process, but we don’t see it that way either. We see it as the place that you start, but there is lot more that a design should do than just attaining usability.

Usability doesn’t really get at the psychological and emotional context of use. Usability will tell you, from an ergonomic perspective, what people can do with a product, but there is lot more to making a product successful in the marketplace and making a product feel successful in people’s minds. Often, we find that clients come to us, thinking they have a usability problem, but it turns out that their products are pretty usable. The reason that the product is falling short is it is not satisfying an emotional or psychological need.


Where do you think the industry is on that learning curve?

I think the industry as a whole is only just starting to get a handle on the broader context of the decisions we make about design. When we started talking about usability in the late 1990s, it was a really radical notion of studying users and figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to design.

What we’re doing now is moving beyond that and starting to ask questions about the wider context that happens in users’ minds when they use products. We’re having to develop new methods and approaches to answer these types of questions. I think the industry as a whole is struggling with this, although some companies are more mature than others in their understanding of it.

A lot of these Web 2.0 companies that have been very successful in getting people’s attention have a personality to them. It turns out that this really resonates with an audience. People want products that have a personality and to have a sense of who the product is. Traditional usability is not designed to address that, so we have found ourselves looking more to traditional techniques from marketing and branding to get at the emotional component of the user experience.


There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about behavioural targeting. Do you think these solutions know enough about what a user is trying to achieve when they go on a website?

With behavioural targeting, we are still learning the basics of how to do it effectively. One part of the problem is that, until recently, we haven’t really had good metrics to understand at a granular level how people are using the systems we have developed. But the analytics tools have greatly improved in the last few years, and Google Analytics in particular, as a free, widely available tool that was designed by some former employees of Adaptive Path, has put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of anyone that wants it.

We still have a long way to go. The challenge of doing behavioural targeting in an automated way is you are always running the risk of misinterpreting the users’ actions and offering help when they don’t need it.

What we try to do is be really cautious. If you can’t be 100% sure of what the user is trying to accomplish, you need to pull back from trying to insert yourself into the process. They start to feel that the product doesn’t understand them and that has emotional consequences – they accomplished their task but they don’t feel good about it.


Do you see persuasion techniques being used to improve behavioural targeting?

I think there’s a definite possibility for persuasion and behavioural targeting to go hand in hand. But persuasion is a tricky thing, with a lot of components to it, and there is no such thing as a persuasion technique that always works. Trying to do that in an automated fashion means that you will fail sometimes and succeed sometimes, and all you can do is to try to improve the odds of success.

For us as designers, that whole question of persuasion and behavioural targeting introduces a set of ethical issues that we have not really had to contend with before. What happens when the interests of the business aren’t perfectly aligned with the interests of the user? What happens when the business is trying to encourage users to behave in a way which is detrimental to them? What responsibility does the designer have to not implement such a design?

I guess, because of the maturity of the tools not quite being there yet, this is a problem that hasn’t really manifested itself in a big way, but it seems inevitable that this is where it is all headed.


People say you are the father of Ajax. What are the pros and cons you should look out for if you are thinking of implementing Ajax in your site?

Ajax is not a silver bullet. It is not going to magically solve all of the problems with the design of your site. A lot of people think nowadays that they can implement some Ajax and all the user complaints about their site will go away.

Ajax can interfere with a site, particularly as it puts the burden on the designer to clearly communicate to the user, to help them have appropriate expectations of how the application will behave. Ajax gets in the way of usability when it introduces behaviours people don’t expect, and the overall design doesn’t communicate with them effectively so that they do know what to expect.

A lot of people are interested in learning how it works, but they are choosing features where it is easiest to implement, rather than where it would be most useful or effective.

One of the big advantages of Ajax is it is something people can implement in an incremental fashion – unlike migrating to Flash. It is something you can implement in little bits and pieces, which is great, but you have to make smart choices about which bits and pieces you give priority to.


Our recent User Experience Report found that ‘improved perception of brand’ was the most popular choice as a benefit of usability among the firms we surveyed. Do you think that’s encouraging? 

The emphasis on brand perception as the main benefit of usability is a sign of what I was talking about earlier – we are starting to see a shift from making sites work to making sites that communicate a set of brand attributes and values to an audience. Five years ago, there would have been very little talk about branding.


Do you agree with the top international sites respondents chose for their usability – including Amazon, Google and eBay?

It’s interesting to see Amazon and eBay so high on the list, because I think Amazon was delivering a really terrific experience a few years ago, but have found themselves in a land of diminishing returns in the design choices they are making.

If you compare the sheer number of navigational elements on a present day Amazon page with the way it was just a few years ago, they are just starting to load these pages up with features. I think the reason they are doing that is that they are trying to squeeze every drop of revenue they can out of these pages, but I think the overall usability is starting to suffer. It’s becoming so baroque – all of the different features and components they have loaded onto these pages.

eBay has almost the opposite problem, in that because they have this enormous community of people, the sellers, that depend on eBay for their livelihood, there are a lot of people that have really invested in how the site functions. eBay has been slow to change, because they haven’t been able to make changes that would appease this audience of millions of people that don’t want to see the site change.

Amazon and eBay are two interesting case studies in how a usable site can go astray.


Do you have any advice to a project manager embarking on a usability project?

I think the most important thing for a project manager is to recognise that you are not going to be able to write the entire script for the project up front.

A lot of project managers run into trouble when they spend a lot of time early on specifying, down to the hour, every task involved in the project. Having done that, they feel a need to preserve it and prevent it from changing at all costs. The timeline sort of becomes an end in itself, and that’s not the true goal of the project.

You need to acknowledge that, along the way, unexpected things are going to happen – they do with any moderately complex technology project. So you need to expect the unexpected and be willing to improvise in the moment. That’s the most valuable skill a project manager can bring – the ability to juggle tasks and resources in a way that addresses changing circumstances and still keeps it heading towards the ultimate goal.


How much non-web work are you doing at the moment?

We are doing a lot of work outside the web. The mobile industry has started to pick up on the power of good design in a big way, and beyond just industrial design – how people interact with products and how they can use that to gain a competitive edge.

The mobile industry is so competitive right now. There are so many devices out there now, everyone is looking at ways to differentiate themselves. Even though there are some very sophisticated devices, the mobile industry as a whole hasn’t quite taken up the charge of usability in the same way as the web industry has.

That’s changing now – we have done quite a few projects in the mobile space recently.


Also see our recent Usability and User Experience Report and Usability and Accessibility Buyer’s Guide for more information on user-centred design.