Understanding the 5 Planes of UX

We always buy products online, and the process is usually the same.

  1. Search for the item online and go to the site.
  2. Add the product to the cart and checkout.
  3. Enter personal details and payment info.
  4. The website confirms that the product will be sent.
  5. An email appears in your inbox confirming the purchase.

Did you know this experience results from many decisions, big and small, about how the website looks, behaves, and what it lets you do? All these layers of decisions build on each other and affect every part of the user experience. To be more exact, these layers of decisions are called planes.

Cue the five planes of UX.

A user experience designer, Jesse James Garrett, introduced five UX design elements in his book The Elements of User Experience. In the book, he explains the steps of user experience projects and what UX designers should consider at each stage.

Each of the five planes is an opportunity to focus on making decisions that build the user experience of a product.

  1. Surface — look and feel
  2. Skeleton — navigation and flow
  3. Structure — organization of content and features
  4. Scope — defining the boundaries of the product
  5. Strategy — goals and objectives of the product

These five planes — strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface — provide a way to discuss user experience problems and how we solve them.

The 5 Planes of UX consists of surface, skeleton, structure, scope, and strategy.
The 5 Planes of UX — Surface, Skeleton, Structure, Scope, and Strategy.

On the bottom plane (strategy), we care about how the site fits into our strategy and meets the users’ needs. On the highest plane (surface), we only care about the product’s appearance details.

As we move from the most abstract bottom plane to the most concrete top plane, the decisions become more specific and involve finer levels of detail.

Your Choices Affect Multiple Planes

Planes depend on the lower plane attached to them. The surface plane depends on the skeleton, which depends on the structure and scope, and strategy.

Choices on the strategy plane have a ripple effect throughout the chain, and options are limited by decisions on the planes below.

When choices don’t align with these planes, it could result in the following:

  1. Projects go off track.
  2. Deadlines are missed.
  3. The cost to build increases.
  4. Customers do not like the experience.

Your choices on each plane affect your choices on the next plane above it. Choosing an option that is not allowed at a higher level will affect the decisions on lower levels. This causes a ripple effect.

Lower-level decisions (strategy, scope, or structure) can affect higher-level decisions. These decisions can have an impact in both directions.

Still, it’s only sometimes necessary to address each lower-level decision before moving on. Higher-level decisions can require a reevaluation or initial evaluation of lower-level issues.

The Order You Do Your Work Matters

Making quick decisions can hurt your project’s schedule and success. Finish work on one part before moving on to the next. When deciding on more minor changes, only make them permanent after deciding on more significant features.

Plan your project to finish lower planes before moving on to higher planes. It’s like building a house: you only make the roof after completing the foundation. Finish all the work for one part before starting on the next one. However, in real life, you might work on multiple planes simultaneously. Every decision you make will affect all the parts above it. So, finishing all the work for each plane before moving on is best. Every decision you make will be consistent and make sense across all the planes.

Get Feedback Early and Often

Sometimes an organization structures information very differently from how users would find it easiest to use. One common issue I’ve noticed is when designers get the requirements and must create the structure without getting feedback from users and stakeholders. To avoid this, involve stakeholders and get user feedback early on, and then keep making changes as necessary.


User experience design involves five planes: strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface. Decisions on each plane affect the planes above and below, and the order in which decisions are made matters. Making decisions too soon can negatively impact the project schedule and the final product’s success, so it’s essential to plan the project to ensure lower parts are finished before moving on to higher planes.