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Design Principles

Improving your sense of judgment is critical to becoming better at designing products. Good design principles can help improve your judgment. When you’re faced with conflicting choices in the design process, good principles help you break the tie.

Good principles go beyond common truisms like ‘Our designs should be accessible’, ‘We should delight the user’ and so on. Good principles uncover the often-difficult-to-describe aspects in the design process, and explain them well in a way that makes it easy for people to apply them.

Here are a few principles that help you design better:

🔁 Maintain continuity throughout a user story.

In a user journey, they traverse through different screens and states. It is easy for the user to lose track of what they were doing (and get confused) if the continuity is not maintained through the journey. Some may even abandon the flow altogether. On every step, user tends to lose some information from their memory, often called ‘information slippage’. We can prevent this by designing for continuity with the right copywriting, visual cues, and maintained context. This way, the experience keeps filling in the gaps in user’s working memory. This continuity leads to fewer surprises (and shocks) and increases the likelihood that the user completes the journey.

✅ Prioritise coherence over consistency.

When we design, it is natural to design each screen to be consistent with the last. But more important is for each screen to make logical sense to the user. In order to have the screen be logical in a certain context, we may have to design it differently than the other screens we designed before. We may have to break broader conventions in order to serve the current purpose. Breaking the conventions is not only recommended, it is encouraged. Our goal is to ensure the user is able to take the desired action with confidence, clarity and speed at each step. Confidence & clarity come from the experience being coherent and logical.

🧘 Attain flow state to give perception of speed.

When designing user stories, it’s often temping to reduce the number of steps required to complete a task. In doing so, we end up with complexity that slows user down. Instead, if information is broken down into a sequence of atomic steps that are easy to understand and arranged in the right sequence of complexity, the user can move through them faster. The ease & speed of task completion creates the perception of being in flow. When the user is in flow, it does not matter how many steps are performed to complete each task, as long as they are performed on auto-pilot, without the user needing to think or stop.

🎯 Clarify purpose through visual hierarchy.

When an interface doesn’t make it obviously clear what its purpose is, it leads to user confusion, frustration and abandonment. In such a scenario, more often than not, the visual hierarchy is broken – text labels are of similar sizes, bearing similar font-weights, having no colour differentiation and so on. We must establish clear visual contrast between the most important elements on the screen (through size, sc#ale and colour) and the less important ones. When the interface is flat in contrast (with elements at the same visual prominence, and not enough differentiation), it becomes cognitively taxing for the user to understand what is expected, and take action. Lack of visual hierarchy is directly correlated with users giving up. Here’s a good way to think about this: Every interaction is a transaction between user and the product. If the user can clearly tell what is expected from them, and what they get out of it, the transaction would likely succeed.

👀 Elevate the perception of product quality with good aesthetics.

Good aesthetics make a big difference in user’s perception of product quality. The product that gets its visual details right, creates a perception that it is reliable, well made, robust and fit for repeated use. Not just the internal product details, even good product packaging is about getting the aesthetics right. The design of the product logo and app icon often determine whether user will use the product or not.

🚦 Reduce crossroads in your experience.

A crossroad in user experience is when multiple similar choices are offered to the user, that take the user onto different paths. On such multi-forked crossroads, user has a hard time taking a decision. The main navigation of the product is a good example of a necessary and useful crossroad. Navigation helps the user get to the right place faster. But beyond the main navigation, every additional crossroad can lead to disorientation, making the user feel lost in the product. Such crossroads lead to user inaction & abandonment, and should be avoided.

Imagine a big mall with a central courtyard. This courtyard has 5 different directions you can go into. Let’s say you pick a direction and start walking. After a while, you encounter another similar courtyard which has 4 more different directions.

Now you’re confused. Which direction do you go into?

How will you trace your path back to where you came from?

What if you encounter another one further down the road, what will you do then?

These questions end up making you feel uncomfortable and confused.

🕵️ Design for intentional disclosure over discovery.

In a new product, it is foolhardy to assume users will discover all the useful features on their own. Users do not know the important features they should look for. We should disclose important features to the user at appropriate moments in their journey. ‘What will be the right way for us to disclose this to the user?’ is a much more useful question to ask than ‘How will the user discover this?’.

✨ Don’t reinvent the wheel. But if we must, use the 3% rule.

The 3% rule goes like this: Instead of reinventing the wheel fully, change it in the most important place where it will make the biggest difference. When designing something differently, find the most impactful small change that improves the experience significantly and delights the user. Keep everything else the same as the user would expect. Exploit the familiarity, but offer just enough novelty. A very useful parallel is the Principle of Least Astonishment (POLA).

Here are a few links for further reading on design principles: Rules by Jef Raskin, Designing for subway legibility, Super normal by Dave Morin, Bedrock UX principles by Eric Button, and this Hacker News thread with very interesting comments.