A well-articulated set of interface design principles will make you a better designer, not limit your creativity.
We designers often design intuitively. However, to become a truly great designer, you need to delve a little deeper into the problem and define the interface design principles that underlie your work.
Great design doesn’t come from purely creative inspiration. Instead, we build it around established best practices.
These interface design principles are open to discussion and interpretation. However, we can say with confidence that great design is not born only from creative inspiration. Instead, we build it on best practices gained over hundreds of years of design and evolved over the past few decades as interfaces become more sophisticated.
In this article, I want to share with you 15 interface design principles that have shaped my designs over the years. I am not claiming that this is an exhaustive list, but I hope it serves as a guide for beginners and perhaps inspires experienced designers.
We’ll start by looking at the basics of usability.
1. Don’t make the user think
The main task of the designer is to make the interfaces intuitive. We must assume that those who use our websites will be distracted or have limited time. Their cognitive load will be high and will probably only have a few seconds left on the site. If the site becomes difficult to use in these few seconds, users will abandon it, and your design will not cope with its task.
2. It’s not about design
One of the ways designers make it harder to interact with an interface is by prioritizing aesthetics over usability. We often seek to showcase our design skills or experiment with the latest design trends, thereby undermining the site’s usability.
The essence of a website is about content and functionality, not design.
It is important to remember that a website is primarily about content and functionality, not design. Design helps the user figure out what he wants to know or do what he needs to do. Design should never take center stage.
3. Give the user control
Design should primarily focus on giving the user a sense of control over their experience. When a design forces the user to search for how to do something, or worse, breaks the basic functionality of the web (like hitting the back button or resizing text), it crashes.
Giving the user a control also means control over looping animations or autoplaying videos. The more control a user has, the more relaxed and receptive they are.
4. Design for interaction
It is important to remember that the Internet is ultimately an interactive environment, and our projects must take this into account. Buttons should look and behave like buttons. The same goes for links.
We also need to think carefully about the impact of user interactions. What happens if the user makes a mistake? How does the design adapt if the user resizes the browser or switches devices?
Finally, what about the default states for these interactions. Should this checkbox be checked or not? Should the list of countries by default indicate a specific country, or what the user sees when they first log into the application? All of these design decisions matter.
5. Focus on one action at a time
Due to the interactive nature of web design, users often have to perform a lot of interactions. However, this can quickly overwhelm them. This is why we need to focus on one activity at a time.
This is especially important when it comes to calls to action. We often bombard users with secondary calls to action (like subscribing to a mailing list or following us on social media) when the primary action goes unnoticed. Users cannot perceive that much at a time.
6. Break dense content into chunks
Another way to avoid user overload is to break your content into easier-to-digest chunks. Large blocks of text, many product categories, or flat information architecture can overwhelm users by presenting too much information at one time.
To avoid this problem, we can break the content into smaller groups, which will make the information easier to digest. For example, we can split the block of text in the example below into heading sections, or divide the navigation into different categories.
The most important rule of UX design is: “Everyone breaks down large chunks of information into small ones to process the information faster.”
7. Group related items
While content breakdown can be useful in many circumstances, sometimes you need to do the opposite by visually grouping related elements.
Take navigation as an example. Don’t force the user to search for different navigation blocks all over the screen. Collect them together into a similar part of the interface.
8. Build a strong visual hierarchy
Ultimately, content grouping and breaking down comes down to creating a solid visual hierarchy for your site. But that goes beyond the relationship between elements.
Size, color and position play an important role in creating visual hierarchy and orienting the user around the page.
9. Be predictable
Many designers are desperate to do something new and innovative. They want to do something differently, but it rarely works out well. When your designs deviate from people’s expectations, it confuses them and creates a sense of anxiety.
My advice: If you want to experiment (and should) do it on side projects or on specific websites where research is appropriate.
10. Use aesthetics to get users in the right mood
While design is intended to facilitate user interaction, that is not its only role. While a number of usability experts think so, I don’t believe that the goal of design is just functionality.
The design should also inspire the right mood in the user, be it excitement, impression, or trust.
The design of a slot machine is a good example of the role of aesthetics in shaping the user experience.
11. Images must have a clear purpose
The hazardous area is the images. Designers often upload images to add “visual interest” to the page, but this is a mistake.
You must have a clear purpose for any images you add. Either they have to support the content on the page by conveying information, or we have to design them to encourage a specific user response.
12. Maintain inclusiveness
When we use images, we also have to consider accessibility. Moreover, we must build entire websites to meet the needs of the widest possible audience.
It is dangerous to make assumptions about our audience and their accessibility needs.
13. Fit the user’s mental model
Another area in which we tend to make assumptions about users is how they organize information in their heads. This usually manifests itself in the assumptions we make when creating the information architecture of sites or our use of the language.
However, it is unlikely that our mental models match those of our users, because our clients are experts in the content they want to publish on the Internet. The more aware a person is about the subject, the more his mental model deviates from the general audience.
14. Test and iterate
To challenge our assumptions about users, we must conduct tests. Testing is very important to the overall design process.
Great design is not completely formed in the head of the designer. Instead, it evolves through testing and iteration.
Great design is not completely formed in the head of the designer. Instead, it evolves through testing and iteration. Therefore, our process must reflect this.
15. Priority for performance
Finally, on the web, the priority of good interface design should be performance. As designers, we love to use images, videos, and many web fonts. However, this will have a significant negative impact on the performance of the website.
Poor performance has a significant impact on conversions and page views.
We have to work within the constraints of the environment. On the web, performance matters. You cannot assume that humans have a specific bandwidth. Therefore, we need to design for the least optimal environment.
Interface Design Principles – Limitations?
I often hear that principles like these limit creativity and stifle innovation. However, I disagree. Design is not art. It exists within the constraints. Design does a certain job, and art is self-expression.
Are interface design principles limiting? Certainly. However, they do not hold back creativity or innovation. Creativity and innovation happen because of limitations, not in spite of them.
This is a lesson we must all learn if we want to be better designers. Working in accordance with these principles will help us with this.