When we talk about creating visual elements or even about Design, in general, the idea that exists is that this is a free process, almost anarchist, without rules. In this area, there is almost an encouragement to challenge and break rules, a path that seems natural to me in a field where creativity is so important. Without freedom, how would we be creative?
In the digital world, in the webspace, if we were limited to the same styles and fixed rules from the beginning, there would not have been any evolution that would stimulate the interest of users in trying out new websites, new applications, and even new products or services.
“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”
Edward de Bono
In this regard, the word “rule” may be too heavy for the design world, but none of this means that “absolute freedom” is the key to success. Creativity is nothing more than a thought generated from our experiences, from things we’ve observed before. The purpose of Design is not to make things beautiful. The purpose of design is to communicate something or lead to something. It is much more related to a plan/strategy than even the aesthetic itself. That’s why it’s also a work that never ends (it takes a lot of patience) because goals change, people change, and design has to keep up and often even drive to that change.
In this sense, in the specific role of UX & UI, our goal is to guide the user to do what we want, within our website or application. The design is basically what makes the experience easier and more satisfying for the user and that, of course, is concluded with the action that our company or brand wants. This means that “absolute freedom” in the process doesn’t make sense either. Each project always has a goal and the design work is to guide the user to get to that goal.
Therefore, and although we are not limited to “rules” in the process, there are strategies and principles that help us build or assess whether we are doing our job well. With them, we can increase the possibilities of success of our interfaces without sabotaging any freedom in creativity.
Jacob Nielsen, who is considered “the king of usability” and “the best-known usability and design guru on the Internet” identified 10 principles for interaction design. These principles are general and applicable in any interaction design, either it is a digital or even a physical product such as a dishwasher. I will present all of these with some illustrations trying to make it easier to understand their use in a digital context.
1. Inform the system status
The user always has to know where he is and what is happening on the platform he is using. For that to happen, the design needs to provide constant feedback on every action that takes place.
When a website gives us this feedback about what we are doing, we can better plan succeeding actions taking into account what we have learned in previous ones. Feedback helps us understand how a tool works giving confidence to any user.
2. Use the user language
All information present in an application must be user-oriented taking into account his mental process. When we use an application, we have to understand the meaning of the elements that are presented to us without having to search about it. For this to happen, the designer has to study very well the user profile and realize how he can communicate in his “language”.
3. User Control and Freedom
Commonly, when using an application or website a user can perform some actions by mistake. Therefore, it must be always possible to undo, or simply go back on an action. This will enable a sense of freedom and provide the confidence we aim for, avoiding any frustration on the part of the user.
4. Consistency and Standards
In the digital world, we all use multiple tools, applications, or websites and since the first time we learn to use them, we have retained these experiences in our memory. In the specific case of an online store, we all already know how they work, in which positions the buttons are and the actions we are going to take to buy a product. This creates an expectation in us, the users. If we enter an online store and find a completely new format, we feel forced to learn something new, increasing our cognitive load.
This does not imply that we have to “copy” the standard of the most visited stores in the web, it just indicates that we must take this matter into account, using it to our advantage, placing the elements where the user will recognize and interact with more efficiently.
5. Error Prevention
Errors do happen, but one of the biggest jobs of a designer is essentially preventing them from happening.
Jacob Nielsen presents us with two types of errors: slips and mistakes. Slips are inattention errors, while mistakes are conscious errors that arise due to a mismatch between the design and the user’s mental model. The previous point of consistency and standards is a good example of how to act to prevent these errors of inattention or mistake because if our design is consistent compared to the rest of the market, we can avoid cognitive overload and slippage. In addition to this, it is clear that the point of user control is also essential because we always have to be able to go back or redo an action, after an error.
6. Recognition rather than recall
Still focusing on minimizing the user’s cognitive load, we must keep the most important elements and options always visible on every page of our interface. The menu is one of the most obvious examples of this, and we can see that websites and applications by default always keep it visible and/or reachable on any page, so that the user can perform various actions and easily navigate between different sections.
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
In complex applications/tools it is crucial to help a new user without any experience, but also, never forget to facilitate and speed up the experience of an expert user, who already has excellent knowledge of the platform. This last one wins if you have shortcuts that make the experience as efficient as possible. The idea is that these more novice or expert users can also “choose” to customize their environment to do more or do less.
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
Interfaces should only contain information that is relevant and necessary to the user, or at least they should always be more evident than any other extra unit of information.
The appearance of the user interface (UI) should focus on the essentials. Users cannot be distracted by elements they don’t need. It is necessary to prioritize all the resources and content that lead the user to his goal.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
At point ‘1. Inform the system status‘ we considered the great need of giving feedback to the user about everything that is happening and in this situation, the issue of errors leads us to the need of not only communicate but also to explain what happened and how it can be solved. Offering a solution is vital. There should be a special focus on presenting errors visually in a way that the user will recognize them.
The message should have plain language, putting the technical issues of the error more minimally, so that more advanced users can better explore the error diagnosis if they want to.
10. Help and documentation
In a perfect world, no further explanation should be needed. Still, it’s good that there is a space dedicated just to help the users to understand how the system works. When this kind of documentation exists, the user himself also gets more confidence in the system he is using.
These principles by Jacob Nielsen have experienced some updates in the explanations and/or examples, but their basis and main foundation for each of them have remained the same since 1994. Almost 30 years later, they all remain current and applicable in various contexts of interaction design.
We can apply all these principles in our UX & UI Design to increase the chances of success for our application or website! Nevertheless, these should be seen as a “tool” in our favor, a “formula” that can guide us so that our work results in the best possible way. Thereafter, it’s up to the designer to put the best of himself, using his creativity and experiences to make the difference. The secret? Try, try and try again! The most creative ones are those who try, fail and try again, until they manage to achieve something new, different and innovative!
What's Your Reaction?
Marco is Affinity’s Creative & Motion Designer. Master of multimedia communications, Marco's skills range from graphic design to motion, from UX/UI design to Frontend also including video production. This last one is, in fact, Marco’s greatest passion. He’s Affinity’s very own Christopher Nolan!