Design Principles

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


What are Design Principles?

Design Principles are widely applicable laws, guidelines, biases and design considerations, all reflecting researchers’ and practitioners’ accumulated knowledge and experience. Design Principles draw from many disciplines—e.g., behavioral science, sociology, physics and ergonomics. Designers apply them with discretion.

Design Principles – Laws with Leeway

Design Principles are fundamental points of advice for making easy-to-use, pleasurable designs as we select, create and organize elements and features in our work. Design Principles represent the accumulated wisdom of researchers and practitioners in design and related fields, and inform us of how users will likely react to our creations. “KISS” (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) is an example of a principle for minimizing confusion by designing for non-experts.

Minimizing users’ cognitive loads and decision-making time is vital in UX design. 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 sound design decisions in projects. Successful application of Design Principles depends on designers’ grasps of problems, and eye for how users will accept solutions. For instance, abiding by the principle of “good hierarchy” doesn’t automatically mean using a 3:1 header-to-text weight ratio. The latter is a standard rule, whereas a guideline for implementing good hierarchy could be “text should be easy to read”. Designers anticipate users’ needs discretionally – e.g., judging how to guide the user’s eye using symmetry or asymmetry. Using judgment in adapting Design Principles means we build solid experience from addressing 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 employ Design Principles such as visibility, findability and learnability to address basic human behaviors. We use some Design Principles, such as perceived affordances (e.g., buttons), to guide actions, putting 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 not, 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 offering an easy ride.
  2. Offer few options – don’t hinder users with “nice to haves”; instead, give them needed alternatives.
  3. Reduce distractions – let users perform tasks consecutively, not simultaneously.
  4. Cluster related objects together.
  5. Have an easy-to-scan visual hierarchy mirroring 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, showing how everything interconnects.
  9. Avoid jargon.
  10. Make designs efficient and streamlined.
  11. Use defaults wisely – offering predetermined, well-considered options helps minimize decisions and increase efficiency.
  12. Don’t delay users – ensure quick interface responses.
  13. Emotion – pleasure of use is as vital as ease of use; arousing users’ passion increases engagement.
  14. 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 via your design, assuring users and eliminating 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:

Whitney Hess examines Design Principles here:

An insightful, example-laced look into Design Principles:

A helpful piece addressing Design Principles’ importance in mobile experiences:

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