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., judginghow 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:
Don’t interrupt or give users obstacles; make obvious pathways offering an easy ride.
Offer few options – don’t hinder users with “nice to haves”; instead, give them needed alternatives.
Reduce distractions – let users perform tasks consecutively, not simultaneously.
Cluster related objects together.
Have an easy-to-scan visual hierarchy mirroring users’ needs, with commonly used items handily available.
Make things easy to find.
Show users where they’ve come from and where they’re headed with signposts/cues.
Provide context, showing how everything interconnects.
Make designs efficient and streamlined.
Use defaults wisely – offering predetermined, well-considered options helps minimize decisions and increase efficiency.