Iterating JJG’s Nine Pillars

Jesse James Garrett published The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams in July 2003.  Ten years later his diagram of the nine pillars [PDF] is still displayed on the wall of my office.  It has influenced me that much.

The Nine Pillars as a Process Map

Jesse probably didn’t intend the diagram to be used as a process map, but that’s how I’ve been using it for years.

At a high level the pillars describe the process of creating an online experience from start to finish. It works with my in-house teams because they can see things like:

  • User experience is part of strategy.
  • Content strategy is just as important as technology and site strategy.
  • The broad concepts — strategy, technology, content, design — overlap and influence each other.
  • Two clear phases in the development process — a thinking (strategic) phase and a doing (tactical) phase.

10 Years Later:  Should the Pillars Change?

Two years ago I asked Jesse via Twitter if he would revise the pillars. His response, “I guess today I would add some sort of business dimension and maybe expand project management to include ongoing operations.”

I cherished that tiny interaction because I didn’t expect any acknowledgement, let alone a meaningful answer.

JJG's Twitter Response

For Your Consideration: The Nine Pillars – Iterated

I want to incorporate Jesse’s ideas.  I’m trying to address a specific problem I see every day:

People get very excited about creating new online experiences — be it a website, a social media channel, etc. — but there is little acknowledgement that once the experience exists it has to be nurtured, sustained, and improved upon.

Online experiences remind me of puppies.  Everyone is so excited to get a puppy.  They are so cute!  But if you’re not prepared, you quickly come to realize they have jaws and claws and they aren’t so cute when they eat your shoes.  Neglected, they can become a real problem.  Then you have to call in dog experts like my good friends at Applejack K-9 Academy.

But I digress.

My point is that most people wouldn’t abandon a puppy, but investments like an online experiences are abandoned daily.  You see it in redundant, outdated, trivial content.  You see it in social spheres when identical messages are distributed via different channels.

My goals for this iteration are to:

  1. Show teams that when you invest in a new online experience, you also need to invest equally (if not more) in sustaining and innovating that experience for the life of the experience.  This gets to Jesse’s point about ongoing operations.
  2. Incorporate the business dimension, which would include things like performance metrics, KPIs, and business intelligence.
The Nine Pillars- Iteration by Megan Ellinger

Building on Jesse James Garrett’s original diagram, I added two sections focused on sustaining and innovating the site experience.


The Sustain phase begins once the site is launched.

Technology Support: Supporting a technical system after implementation requires monitoring.  Software and hardware updates, security and intrusion detection, and backups can’t be glossed over.

Content Management: Content Production continues, but managing and optimizing existing content becomes an equal priority.  Competencies in search engine optimization, taxonomy, ontology, etc. are critical.  And then there’s the really boring but practical aspects of Content Management like link management.

Design Monitoring: Is the design achieving the business goals and KPIs that were established in the Site Strategy phase?  Does the design still serve the audiences it needs to on the devices they use? And if you care about making the experience accessible to persons with impairments, or if you’re required to by law, you have to continuously monitor.


The learning achieved in the Sustain phase is what allows the team to evolve the experience and begin innovating.  You keep what is working, you drop what is not, you conduct more research and find new ways to deliver measurable business results.

Technology Evaluation: It’s changing all the bloody time.  You need people who can think beyond the current industry trends and think about what tomorrow’s trends are likely to be.  You need people who can monitor and evaluate whether your experience is still reaching the people and devices it needs to reach.

Content Evaluation: Content Strategy may change or shift based on findings in the Sustain phase.  You may need to evaluate your content again.  What kinds of content will you continue to invest in, and what content you will not invest in?

Experience Strategy:  In beginning the focus may have been on a single communication channel–the website.  But to truly innovate, you have to consider all your channels to create a cohesive experience.  You’ll need people who can build relationships across the organization and work with others to unify their UX efforts.

What Would You Change?

When I have shown the diagram to a few people I’ve been met with two different reactions:

  • Wow, this is great.
  • Wow, this is complicated.  Too complicate.

I appreciate both comments and I would add some more:

  • It’s okay for it to look complicated.  Planning, building, sustaining, and innovating online experiences is complicated.  Done well, it requires people with a variety of skill sets.  But “too complicated” is a problem.  How do you know when something is really “too” complicated?
  • I like that you can read the diagram from left to right, but the process is not linear.  It’s cyclical.  Sustain and Innovate are feedback loops all by themselves. That isn’t communicate at all. Ideas on how to do that?  I fear it will look like a long spring if I’m not careful.
  • The diagram doesn’t include a time dimension.  Visually it looks like sustain is short, but for some experiences it can be very long.  Is not having a time dimension bad?  I’m not certain.  I worry about adding more to the diagram.  If anything, I’d like to be more like Tim Gunn and take an editing eye to the diagram.

So Mom and Dad, that’s what I’ve been working on.  Thanks for the love and support and if you have suggestions, let me know.

P.S.  Jesse, if you’re bored, I would love a thinking partner!

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