The visual principles of harmony, unity, contrast, emphasis, variety, balance, proportion, pattern and direction (and others) are widely recognised and practiced, even when they aren’t formally articulated. But creating a good design doesn’t automatically mean creating a good experience. In order for us to cultivate positive experiences for our users, we need to establish a set of guiding principles for experience design. Guiding principles are the broad philosophy or fundamental beliefs that steer an organisation, team or individual’s decision making, irrespective of the project goals, constraints, or resources.
In Whitney Hess‘ Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, 2011, she shared a universally-applicable set of experience design principles that we should all strive to follow, and will explore how you can create and use your own guiding principles to take your site or product to the next level.
Universal User Experience Principles
- Stay out of people’s way. The Tumblr homepage does this. You can find out more about Tumblr further down the page, but it doesn’t assume that’s what you want to have thrust in your face. Instead the primary content is all about getting started with Tumblr straight away.
- Create a hierarchy that matches people’s needs. This is about prioritisation. Mint.com uses different font sizes to match the hierarchy of importance on its “ways to save” page. Give the most crucial elements the greatest prominence. Use hierarchy to help people process information.
- Limit distractions. Don’t put pregnancy test kits next to condoms. On the web, Wanderfly does this right: one single path, completely self-contained. Multi-tasking is a myth. Let people focus on one task. Design for consecutive tasks, not concurrent.
- Provide strong information scent. Quora does a great job at this with its suggested search options. It’s actively helping you choose the right one. People don’t like to guess haphazardly, they like to follow their nose.
- Provide signposts and cues. Labelling is important. The Neiman Marcus e-commerce site does this right. It’s always clear where you are: the navigation is highlighted. You’d think that in 2011 this would be standard but you’d be surprised. Never let people get lost, especially on the web where there’s a limitless number of paths. Show people where they came from and where they’re going.
- Provide context. A sign that says “Back in 30 minutes” isn’t helpful if you’re in a hurry—you don’t know when the sign was put up. On the web, AirBnB provides everything you need to know on a listing page, all in one place. It’s self-contained and everything is communicated up-front.
- Use constraints appropriately. Preventing error is a lot better than recovering from it. If you know there are restrictions ahead of time, stop people from going down that route in the first place.
- Make actions reversible. Remember The Milk provides an “undo?” link with almost every action. There’s no such thing as perfect design; people will make errors, so you should have a contingency plan. Undo is probably the most powerful control you can provide to people.
- Provide feedback. How do you know when you’re asthma inhaler is empty? You don’t. You won’t find out until the worst moment. On the Web, loading indicators provide useful feedback. Tell people that a task is underway. Design is a conversation, not a monologue.
- Make a good first impression. Vimeo has one of the best first-time user experiences: “Welcome. You’re new, aren’t you?” Establish the rules, set expectations about the relationship you’re about to initiate on your site.
The basis for all of these principles are Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: ethos (ethical appeal), pathos (emotional appeal) and logos (rational appeal)—the rhetorical triangle.
Your Own Principles
Are universal principles enough? Every product has its own goals. So you might need to create your own to guide you toward the right experience for your service. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others have their own design principles. Without principles we don’t know what we are trying to achieve.
Remember, user experience is the establishment of a philosophy of how to treat people; help people make their lives better.
Whitney’s presentation can be found on Slideshare.