The user interface is an essential part of any digital product. When the interface is well designed, users don’t notice it — it’s a seamless experience. Problems begin when the user interface is poorly designed, and users cannot complete their task flow.
To increase the chances of success, most designers follow the three well-known interface design principles:
Jakob Nielsen – 10 usability heuristics for user interface design
Ben Shneiderman – The eight golden rules of interface design
Bruce Tognazzini – Principles of interaction design.
I follow the fundamental design principles, but I have discovered the best way to learn is looking at examples of bad design and compare them to good design. Why? Because they draw attention to the mistakes that you need to avoid and allow us to design a better solution.
“Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.” Jared Spool
Don’t get me wrong, looking for mistakes in UI designs is not the most scientific method, but it’s worked for me. These common mistakes led me to create ten principles that form my strategy to user interface design.
1. Make your user interface design easy
Whether you want to improve usability or increase conversion, the most important thing a designer can focus on is making sure the user interface design is effortless. Users expectations are higher than ever, and they don’t tolerate stressful experiences. I see so many organisations fixating on the latest trends when they don’t even have the basics right—keep the interface simple to avoid the users going to your competitors.
2. Don’t make your problems the users issue
Interface design can be very subjective in particular with UI designers and web developers. The conflict of priorities and rushed deadlines can often lead to them solving their own issues rather than focusing on improving the user’s experience.
A common example of this problem is the formatting of form fields. There are many e-commerce websites that require users to format telephone numbers or postcodes whilst filling out their delivery details.
From experience, this sort of issue often transpires because reformatting information to put into a database takes effort from a developer and it seems ‘easier’ to make the user do it—don’t add complexity to the user’s experience.
3. Put users in control of the interface
A user interface designed well instils a sense of control in their users — comfort comes from control. By putting users in control of the interface it allows them to learn quickly and gain a feeling of power.
A thoughtless design takes away the comfort by forcing users into unplanned interactions, complicated journeys and disappointing outcomes. Take my advice and make the interface obvious — trust me, what is obvious to you may not be for someone else.
4. Reduce cognitive load
Cognitive load is the amount of mental processing power required to use a product. By providing the user with too much information to handle their performance will suffer — users will miss important details, get overwhelmed or even abandon the task.
Users attention span is getting shorter and expectations are getting higher. It is important to improve usability and legibility through a good visual organisation. There are many UI guidelines to follow — from chunking content to optimising response times—they are aimed at reducing cognitive load.
In a nutshell, avoid presenting too much information at one time on a screen — old links, irrelevant images, meaningless text. Instead, apply general principles of the content organisation such as grouping related items, bullet points, clear headings and obvious call to actions — it’s better to avoid making users think or work hard to use your product.
Related article: Minimize cognitive load to maximize usability
5. Clarity over complexity
More recently I have noticed how many websites try to be clever when promoting their brand through tone of voice. One of my bugbears when it comes to user interface design is sites trying to be clever or ‘edgy’.
Don’t misunderstand me, some companies do this exceptionally well, however when it comes to fast fashion, I am not a huge fan.
“Did you cop or drop”
“Wanna’ add a throwback edge to your ‘fits?”
“Shop the ‘gram”
Marketing teams like to be clever and try and ‘engage’ with users by applying emotionally charged copy. It becomes unclear exactly what it is they are selling and often lose clarity — focus on the simplicity of content, it is often referred to as one of the fundamental principles of design.
“The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next come simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.” NN Group
6. Be human
This may sound crazy but I am seeing more and more people turning into robots. As UX designers we want to avoid users making mistakes and one fundamental area of websites is the content. For some unknown reason when the internal teams sit to draft some web copy or design a user interface — they stop being humans.
Don’t use confusing language or professional terminology. Write in layman’s terms at all times—this will not offend professionals and it will certainly help newbies understand your product or service.
“On the average web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit, 20% is more likely.” Jakob Nielsen
Above is a great example — remove jargons and complicated words, there are only a handful of people that know what an IP address is. There are several ways this could have been written to help users understand the error.
7. The devil is in the detail
Designers are often perfectionists and this is part of the problem with user interface design — it is easy to make something ‘look good’ but that doesn’t always correlate with the seamless user experience you desire.
Small glitches in the interface are nothing in the grand scheme of a web system, but these small problems can quickly accumulate to create a very frustrating experience.
“A bad user interface design can drive customers away” Becky Birch
Let’s take a banking app as an example — a user is likely to interact with this app on a daily basis and those small annoyances will soon grate to become a large problem. It may even cause the user to move to a competitor.
8. Make user interfaces consistent
Consistency is one of the most important principles of user interface design — why? because it supports usability and learnability.
Without consistency, a website will soon become a mess. I have seen so many companies introduce new features without acknowledging the current design systems or style guidelines — without consistency in design, the site will soon become extremely convoluted.
It all comes back to the famous saying — don’t reinvent the wheel. Consistency is designed to assist users whilst interacting with multiple different apps. We should not expect users to have to learn new skills each time they open an app.
9. Error prevention
As a designer, you are constantly creating improved user flows, developing new or existing features and optimising the user experience. A website is a work in progress and therefore very likely that a user may not get their desired response all of the time — this is not a failure but, a good user interface design needs to be able to adapt to the unexpected.
I see too many obscure error messages which blame the users for the problem or fail to explain what the error is. Human tone and language will help users relate better to the situation and subsequently improve the user’s experience.
10. Progressive disclosure
One of my bugbears when it comes to user interface design is when sites try to show everything all at once — show only what is necessary on each screen.
There is still a misconception that every user will land on the homepage of a website — marketing, social media and people sharing links could bring a user to any page on your website. An ideal interface will defer final decisions to subsequent screens by progressively disclosing information.
When designing a user interface remember; if people are making a decision, show enough information to allow them the choice and then display additional information on a subsequent screen.
Let’s wrap it up
This list covers some of the core problems I see daily with user interface designs across the internet and have led me to form a solid design strategy. Too many organisations are focusing on the latest trends and adding new features (just because) when they don’t even have the basics right yet.
The goal for interface design is to allow the user to easily explore the interface without fear of a negative consequence. Websites are constantly evolving and users are becoming increasingly savvy to the way interfaces should function. Over time interfaces will become more intuitive, predictable and human! The list above will remain the core principles throughout the adaptation of the web and will stand you in good stead for the future of interface design.