Design Principles

Your constantly-updated definition of Design Principles and collection of topical content and literature

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What are Design Principles?

Design principles are widely applicable laws, guidelines, biases and design considerations which designers apply with discretion. Professionals from many disciplines—e.g., behavioral science, sociology, physics and ergonomics—provided the foundation for design principles via their accumulated knowledge and experience.

Design Principles – Laws with Leeway

Design principles are fundamental pieces of advice for you to make easy-to-use, pleasurable designs. You apply them when you select, create and organize elements and features in your work. Design principles represent the accumulated wisdom of researchers and practitioners in design and related fields. When you apply them, you can predict how users will likely react to your design. “KISS” (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) is an example of a principle where you design for non-experts and therefore minimize any confusion your users may experience.

Franks Spillers’ design checklist is an example of a set of customized design principles for mobile user experience (UX) design.

In user experience (UX) design, its vital to minimize users cognitive loads and decision-making time. The authors of the definitive work Universal Principles of Design state design principles should help designers find ways to improve usability, influence perception, increase appeal, teach users and make effective design decisions in projects. To apply design principles effectively, you need a strong grasp of users problems and a good eye for how users will accept your solutions. For instance, you don’t automatically use a 3:1 header-to-text weight ratio to abide by the principle of good hierarchy. That ratio is a standard rule. Instead, a guideline you might use to implement good hierarchy is text should be easy to read. You should use discretion whenever you apply design principles, to anticipate users needs – e.g., you judge how to guide the user’s eye using symmetry or asymmetry. Consequently, you adapt the principles to each case and build solid experience as you address users needs over time.

“Design is not a monologue; it’s a conversation.”

—Whitney Hess, Empathy coach and UX design consultant

Types of Design Principles

Designers use principles such as visibility, findability and learnability to address basic human behaviors. We use some design principles to guide actions. Perceived affordances such as buttons are an example. That way, we put users in control in seamless experiences.

Usability kingpin Jakob Nielsen identified ten “commandments”:

  • Keep users informed of system status with constant feedback.
  • Set information in a logical, natural order.
  • Ensure users can easily undo/redo actions.
  • Maintain consistent standards so users know what to do next without having to learn new toolsets.
  • Prevent errors if possible; wherever you can’t do this, warn users before they commit to actions.
  • Don’t make users remember information – keep options, etc. visible.
  • Make systems flexible so novices and experts can choose to do more or less on them.
  • Design with aesthetics and minimalism in mind – don’t clutter with unnecessary items.
  • Provide plain-language error messages to pinpoint problems and likely solutions.
  • Offer easy-to-search troubleshooting resources, if needed.

Empathy expert Whitney Hess adds:

1. Don’t interrupt or give users obstacles – make obvious pathways which offer an easy ride.

2. Offer few options – don’t hinder users with nice-to-haves; give them needed alternatives instead.

3. Reduce distractions – let users perform tasks consecutively, not simultaneously.

4. Cluster related objects together.

5. Have an easy-to-scan visual hierarchy that reflects users’ needs, with commonly used items handily available.

6. Make things easy to find.

7. Show users where they’ve come from and where they’re headed with signposts/cues.

8. Provide context – show how everything interconnects.

9. Avoid jargon.

10. Make designs efficient and streamlined.

11. Use defaults wisely – when you offer predetermined, well-considered options, you help minimize users’ decisions and increase efficiency.

12. Don’t delay users – ensure quick interface responses.

13. Focus on emotion – pleasure of use is as vital as ease of use; arouse users’ passion to increase engagement.

14. Use “less is more” – make everything count in the design. If functional and aesthetic elements don’t add to the user experience, forget them.

15. Be consistent with navigational mechanisms, organizational structure, etc., to make a stable, reliable and predictable design.

16. Create a good first impression.

17. Be trustworthy and credible – identify yourself through your design to assure users and eliminate uncertainty.

The IDF’s ‘About’ page exemplifies good hierarchy, ease of navigation, whitespace use, etc., while establishing trust.

Learn More about Design Principles

The Interaction Design Foundation has courses on using Design Principles effectively: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses

Whitney Hess examines Design Principles here:https://uxmag.com/articles/guiding-principles-for-ux-designers

An insightful, example-laced look into Design Principles: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/01/universal-principles-ux-design/

A helpful piece addressing Design Principles’ importance in mobile experiences: https://uxplanet.org/mobile-ux-design-key-principles-dee1a632f9e6


Literature on Design Principles

Here’s the entire UX literature on Design Principles by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Design Principles

Take a deep dive into Design Principles with our course Psychology of Interaction Design: The Ultimate Guide.

“It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.”1 Whatever your “elephant” may be, a deep understanding of human psychology is essential for all designers when creating a user-centered product with great user experience.

While many individual differences will never cease to exist between users, we are united by our shared psychology; the constraints and abilities of the human mind are much the same for all of us. Developing an understanding of these cognitive limitations and capabilities is the key to interaction design and a great user experience. Without an awareness of how we interact with things in the real and virtual worlds, you’ll find that your designs will fall short of their potential.

This course will equip you with the knowledge to relate to your users psychologically, thus allowing you to create stand-out products. Through learning about different aspects of human cognition—and how they relate to interaction design—you will find yourself much better equipped to put yourself in your users’ shoes, shifting their thoughts to the forefront and keeping a firm hold of them there when designing your next creation.

All literature

The Principles of Service Design Thinking - Building Better Services

The Principles of Service Design Thinking - Building Better Services

Service design is all about taking a service and making it meet the user’s and customer’s needs for that service. It can be used to improve an existing service or to create a new service from scratch. In order to adapt to service design, a UX designer will need to understand the basic principles of service design thinking and be able to focus on...

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Principle of Consistency and Standards in User Interface Design

Principle of Consistency and Standards in User Interface Design

Learn to design with consistency and standards in mind and understand the reasons why they’re important to incorporate them into your work. Derived from Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich’s Ten User Interface (UI) Guidelines, ‘Consistency and Standards’ are evident in many of the widely-used products created by some of the most successful companies. ...

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Hick’s Law: Making the choice easier for users

Hick’s Law: Making the choice easier for users

Now let’s see a topic about keeping our users’ lives easy. “Isn’t that the theme of most articles here?” you may ask. Well, this one is especially geared towards users. Understanding Hick’s law means you can design so that more users will visit and stay on your website. Delivering a good user experience requires that first you find out the fu...

  • 237 shares
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KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) - A Design Principle

KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) - A Design Principle

It was Albert Einstein who said; “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it well enough.” Though it is often mis-reported as being; “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it well enough.” What Einstein was driving at was a particular application of “keep it simple, stupid”. From scientific concepts to products t...

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The Building Blocks of Visual Design

The Building Blocks of Visual Design

Visual design is about creating and making the general aesthetics of a product consistent. To create the aesthetic style of a website or app, we work with fundamental elements of visual design, arranging them according to principles of design. These elements and principles together form the building blocks of visual design, and a firm understand...

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Visual Hierarchy: Organizing content to follow natural eye movement patterns

Visual Hierarchy: Organizing content to follow natural eye movement patterns

Let’s look at a topic that deals with, oddly enough, how we look at designs. Once you understand how the human eye processes these, you’ll find yourself better able to arrange your elements more effectively. Content in any digital page layout will follow a specific hierarchy. Headers appear above body text. Menus go at the top, bottom, left, or...

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Contextual Design

Ch 8: Contextual Design

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Visual Aesthetics

Ch 19: Visual Aesthetics

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Symmetry vs. Asymmetry - Recalling basic design principles

Symmetry vs. Asymmetry - Recalling basic design principles

Now we’re going to look at two powerful design principles that may, at first glance, seem too simple and second nature to us to warrant too much thought. However, we would be wise not to underestimate their capabilities and the benefits of their effects. Always keeping a firm appreciation for symmetry and asymmetry close to mind can equip you to...

  • 487 shares
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Activity Theory

Ch 16: Activity Theory

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Service Design - Design is Not Just for Products

Service Design - Design is Not Just for Products

Service design is concerned with the design of services and making them better suit the needs of the service’s users and customers. It examines all activities, infrastructure, communication, people, and material components involved in the service to improve both quality of service and interactions between the provider of the service and its cust...

  • 160 shares
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An Introduction to Usability

An Introduction to Usability

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15 Guiding Principles for UX Researchers

15 Guiding Principles for UX Researchers

We’ve found that a lot of first time UX researchers have similar questions and concerns when they start working in UX design. So, we thought we’d round up and tackle some of the most common questions to form a set of useful principles for UX researchers. Of course, this isn’t a complete guide to UX research (there are some fairly weighty tomes o...

  • 235 shares
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Design checklists: What type of designer are you?

Design checklists: What type of designer are you?

What type of designer are you? Do you have a set of principles, checklists, or methods that guide your designs? Or do you prefer to start from scratch and analyze afterwards with a checklist? If you feel more comfortable looking forward, looking backwards– or if you’re a perfectionist who likes to do both – then this article will be useful to yo...

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Responsive Design – Let the Device Do the Work

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Industrial Design

Ch 6: Industrial Design

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Philosophy of Interaction

Ch 11: Philosophy of Interaction

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The Seven Simple Principles of Conversion Centred Design (CCD) and How to Use Them

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Tactile Interaction

Ch 20: Tactile Interaction

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The Pareto Principle and Your User Experience Work

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There are two things that are always in short supply on any project; time and money. The Pareto Principle can, in the long-term, help you save both. It can also help you make intelligent decisions based on your user research. Our story begins with a Management Consultant Joseph M Juran back in the 1940s. He noticed that there is a general rule ...

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