5 Levels of the User Experience Design by James Garrett

The User Experience, better known as UX, is the overall actions, perceptions, emotions, and feelings that appear when using a product. As it is possible to appreciate, the UX includes many factors, sometimes not even directly related to the product. All of this must be considered in the first place even before starting product development.

Did you ever see an application that looks nice but is useless because it does not help customers with their problems? Or vice versa, an “unshapely” application which is quite popular among customers because it allows them to work on their important tasks? Nowadays, for companies to succeed and compete with other organisations, we need to deliver products which both look nice and are comfortable to use. In this post we will see how to work on a digital product without forgetting all the important areas, so the customers are happy with the solution.

James Garrett proposed a 5-level User Experience Design in his book “The Elements of User Experience”. As per his idea, each level represents key tasks to be solved in order to make the overall process as smooth as possible. The 5 levels method focuses on the user experience over the technological aspects and helps to understand and deliver what the customers really need.

The Five Elements of UX from the bottom up

5 Levels of the User Experience Design

The product creation design begins on the first abstract level and develops towards the highest level, getting more details and clearer information as you move up the levels. All levels are in a tightly dependent relationship to each other; that is, changes done on a higher level affect decisions made on lower levels. according to this design strategy, if you define things improperly, then chances are high that nobody will want to use your product. If you make a mistake in the information architecture, it may affect the future development and generate additional expenses to fix it.

1. Strategy (the first layer)

Elements of UX - Strategy

It is the most abstract level in James Garrett's model, and the basis for all further work. The strategy level is dedicated to getting such important information as customers’ and business users’ expectations from the product. What are the problems the product will solve? The product goals must be defined and agreed by all sides here - while working on further levels, everyone will be aligning with them. If the goals or the customer needs were described improperly, the product will be useless.

Working at this level means not only asking the stakeholders, but also potential customers who may use the product. Collect as much information as you can.

The most important questions to be answered are:
1. What is the product? What is this product for and how it will be used?
2. Who will use the product? Who is the customer?
3. What customer pains does this product solve?
4. Who are the competitors? Why is this product better, and why should the customers choose it?
5. How does the product fits your company product strategy?

Organise a few research events to collect all that information to understand the product perspectives and if the expectations meet the market needs.

2. Scope (features set)

Scope - second level of user experience design

The product functionality follows the strategy. On this level, it is crucial to understand what should be done and what should not. The functionality should help the customers and the business to reach their goals.

James Garrett also includes the content requirements in this level. The content requirements depend on the product and how users will get it. This level will give us that understanding. For example, the information may be displayed on content pages or sent via emails or push notifications. The customers may also generate content by themselves. If an additional video or audio content has to be produced, or if the content should include translations into multiple languages, are also factors which should also be indicated since they affect the project timeline.

Understanding the details of the scope of the project (product) and what will help to reach the strategic goals must be laid into the product documentation as functional requirements. Again, that should reflect the real users’ (customers’) needs.

The most important questions to be answered are:
1. Which functions will help customers achieve their goals?
2. What minimal functions set will let us launch the product quickly, and what are the functions to be launched later?
3. What do the competitors' products do to solve similar customer problems?
4. Which content do the customers need?

3. Structure (the middle layer)


The next thing after describing the required functionality is the information architecture and interaction design.

Information architecture

It should be designed once we get the understanding of what the content will be. It is necessary to organise all the content and data in the correct way to help the customers reach anything they need quickly and logically from their point of view. The information architecture should be able to adapt to future structural changes and product scaling (new product categories, new content section, etc.).

Interaction design

It is about how the customers interact with the system interface and how the system responds. It must help the customers achieve their objectives and prevent harmful actions. The interface should be easy to understand and, if possible, without any documentation needed. The user actions must be accompanied by system feedback (i.e., create, update, delete something). In other words, the system should always respond to a user action.

This level is very important for several reasons:

  • The product's structure defines its appearance. It's much easier to change the structure on this level than later when the functionality is developed.
  • The customers get used to the product's structure. For example, if you update the navigation, it may be very difficult for the users to change their habits, even if the previous version of the navigation was incorrect or hard to use.

The structure level describes how, where, and for what the customers are interacting with the product. The main objective is to create the correct structure of the product which visualises the functionality, content placement, and logical connections between its different parts. One of the most useful instruments to work with on this level are User Flows. A User Flow describe a customer’s path when interacting with a product to reach his or her objectives.

As a result, the product structure must be simple and intuitive, tested on real customers and reflecting their preferences.

The most important questions to be answered are:
1. How may the customer reach the objective with maximal effectiveness?
2. Do the customers understand the product navigation, and does it meet their expectations?
3. Will the product be able to scale up or change its structure in the future without the need for serious, additional development?

4. Skeleton (the visuals)

The visual part of UX - Skeleton

Having a great structure for the product, we move on towards developing its functionality. On this level, we understand more about how the product will look based on how it works. The information should be displayed to the customers in a correct and useful way, and represent all their needs at the moment. It should be neither redundant not insufficient.

As per Jessie Garrett, the design divides into three components:
1. Interface design. Describes how the visual elements will be placed and displayed to the customers, how the customers will interact with them.
2. Navigation design. Describes the navigation structure, more like a part of the information design.
3. Information design. Describes how the information should be represented in the interface for better customer understanding.

Usually on this level different prototypes are tested on real customers in order to find an optimal solution. As a result, we get the wireframes useful for further development.

The most important questions to be answered are:
1. Does the prototype help customers reach their objectives?
2. Is the prototype easy to use without additional explanations for the functionality?
3. Is the navigation structure easy and lets the customers reach the needed page quickly? How will the customers navigate through the product?
4. Is there anything important that still might be improved?
5. Is the solution easy to maintain and improve in the future?
6. Is the content presented clearly?

5. Surface (the top level)

The top level of UX - Skeleton

The surface level is the most important one since it determines the product’s appearance. This is where the UI elements and the overall design is created (i.e., fonts, colours, layout). At this level, all the ideas described and clarified on the previous four levels melt down into a form.

Mostly, this is about the visual and aesthetic aspects, helping express the brand, uniting all the product components in one solid solution, attractive to the customers.

The most important questions to be answered are:
1. Does the product solve customers’ problems?
2. Does it complete the objectives set on the first level (Strategy)?
3. Does the product meet all the planned functional requirements?
4. Do the customers like the product and want to get back to it again and again?


All the levels of User Experience (UX) used in the product design are dedicated to developing a good solution which is useful for the customer. The user experience always has to be considered when working on any digital tool since there are a lot of competitors. Those who succeed are those who who provide better UX, who solve the customers’ problems more effectively.

The 5 levels help to deconstruct the process of working on UX, enabling a step-by-step design process, moving from the basics to the details. This method helps create a solid product which meets all the requirements from the customers and from the business.

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About Konstantin Smirnov

I like computers and music.