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Fundamental Principles of Great UX Design | How to Deliver Great UX Design

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A column by Janet M. Six
November 17, 2014

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel looks at the importance of considering the fundamental principles of great design—not just UX design principles, but design principles in general. Our panel also discusses how great UX design takes place within organizations, looking at this topic on many different levels. How can you create great designs when working with a variety of designers with different backgrounds and while working within the constraints of project-defined goals? How can the presence of User Experience at the C-level and, in general, garnering support from the C-level affect our ability to implement great designs. How can we produce great designs in a repeatable manner? Keep reading for the answers to all of these important questions.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Leo Frishberg—Product Design Manager at Intel Corporation
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—Web Design and UX Manager at Royal London; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Jim Nieters—Global Head, User Experience, of HP’s Consumer Travel Division; UXmatters columnist
  • Eryk Pastwa—Vice President of Design at Creatix
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd

Q: What are the fundamental principles of great UX design?—from a UXmatters reader

“For designers working in the ever-changing field of user experience, it’s always important to consider the fundamental principles of design,” responds Pabini. “At many levels, the nature of the work that we do constantly shifts and evolves—whether we’re  designing for new technologies or different contexts, ranging from apps for personal use to cross-channel experiences.

“When we’re called upon to solve design problems that we haven’t solved before, design principles provide a sound basis for devising innovative solutions. For example, in recent years, we’ve seen many new trends in technology products—such as cloud computing, the proliferation of mobile devices and tablets, big data, the Internet of things, and wearable computing. All of these trends have required us to look at design afresh and come up with new interaction models, design patterns, and standards—many of which are still evolving.

“Visual design trends shift as well—sometimes for the better; sometimes not. For example, in the recent past, we saw the prevalent use of small, light-gray fonts that were both too small and too low contrast for good readability—for almost anybody, not just those with serious visual deficits. Now we’re seeing bigger fonts—solving that readability problem I just mentioned—and the flat look everywhere. The flat look is a pleasing aesthetic for the most part, but not when it’s hard to tell the difference between a text box and a button. Clickable and tappable affordances should invite interaction—and that usually means adding at least of bit of dimensionality to them. By paying attention to design principles, which have their basis in human factors, UX designers can avoid creating ill-considered design solutions.”

Fundamental Design Principles

“This question is as broad as asking, ‘What are the fundamentals of medicine or engineering?’ remarks Jordan. While there are specializations within the field of user experience, here’s my attempt at identifying some key fundamental principles of UX design:

  • Be contextual—It’s often easy to think of a user journey like a storybook. If you open most books to any given page and select a word, you’ll be met with an abundance of context on the page. You’ll usually see the title of the book, the chapter, the page number, and the word will appear contextually within a sentence, paragraph, and page. Ensure that users are contextually aware of where they are within their journey.
  • Be human—Be approachable, trustworthy, and transparent. Provide human interactions over machine-like interactions.
  • Be findable—Establish a strong information scent. Provide wayfinding signs.
  • Be easy—Reduce the user’s cognitive workload whenever possible. Be consistent and clear, and establish a strong visual hierarchy.
  • Be simple—Establish a strong signal-to-noise ratio. Avoid distractions, jargon, and long loading times.

“I’ll admit that these are broad principles with far-reaching implications. Some may be more important to interaction designers or information architects, while others may be more important to usability specialists or user researchers.”

“For me,” replies Leo, “the fundamentals of all great design go back to Vitruvius, the Roman engineer who introduced three principles to guide architectural design:

  • Venustas—Beauty, or Delight
  • Firmitas—Firmness, or Soundness
  • Utilitas—Utility, or Commodity

“We can easily map these three principles to the BTU model—Business (Commodity), Technology (Soundness), and User (Delight)—which is in common use. Once you have addressed each of these areas, you can attain the level of elegance, in which you apply the fewest resources for the maximum gain. World-class UX design rests on and is synonymous with world-class system design—as long the system spans both the foundation technology and the people who benefit from it.”

“Focus on user needs and make them the focal point of your design process,” says Eryk. “It’s a cliché, but that’s all UX design is about. From a practical viewpoint, designers should understand that each user’s point of view is unique, so we must be empathetic and step outside our box to understand others’ points of view as much as possible.”

For more design principles, Pabini recommends that you read the following articles on UXmatters:

Delivering Great Design

“This is a very difficult question to answer in a way that is actionable,” answers Peter. “I could say something like ‘Listen to your users,’ but really, what would that tell you that a million other articles don’t? Although I wrote about some of the principles that I use when designing in my UXmatters column ‘Principles Over Standards,’ I think what you may be driving at is really more about how you can produce great design. But I don’t believe there is a set of principles that are applicable in all situations.

“Great design is the result of so many factors—and only a few are within your control, particularly when you first start out as a designer. Being able to deliver great design depends not only on your design ability, but on managing the design process and other participants in that process effectively. For example, you need to understand your client’s goals and drivers, as well as the strengths and limitations of the underlying technology. You need to understand when and how to delegate tasks and how to share ideas effectively with other designers and product team members.

“Probably the most difficult thing of all is accepting that sometimes you cannot deliver the best design you’re capable of—just the best design that you can deliver within the context in which you’re working.

“When I first started driving, my great-uncle advised me to narrate what I was doing as I drove—to force me to reflect on what I was doing and why I was doing it. Design is a very personal thing, so this may not work for you, but what I’ve found works well for me is taking time to reflect on what I’m doing, what other designers have done to solve similar problems, and what my stakeholders—not just users—want to achieve. You can learn as much from failures as successes, but only if you take the time to reflect on why something worked or didn’t work.”

The Layers of Great UX Design

“To highlight the fundamentals of great UX design, we need to look at several layers,” states Jim, “sort of like peeling an onion. I’m assuming that I should start at the beginning, but please note that what I’m writing here is in no way comprehensive. That said, Pabini Gabriel-Petit and I are writing a column for UXmatters that talks about how leaders can create a UX practice that consistently and repeatably delivers great user experiences. Please take a look at the first installment and let us know what you think. In the meantime, here’s my answer to the reader’s question.

“At the first level, all great user experiences are easy to use and delightful to their users. They enable users to perform their tasks with ease and engage them in the right ways. But, not only is great design delightful, it also monetizes well. You can establish metrics to ensure that your designs are great. For consumer sites, you can measure users’ success in getting through different parts of a process funnel—from recognition, to engagement and interaction with the site, to successful accomplishment of whatever the site’s goal is—for example, sales or signups. In addition, I like to measure five factors that define whether a site or product meets users’ needs, because these are factors that UX design can and should impact:

  • discoverability—Can users discover how to accomplish their tasks the first time they look at a product?
  • learnability—Can users easily learn a product’s interaction models and predict how to move from one part of the product to another? On repeat visits, can they remember how to engage with the product to accomplish their goals?
  • efficiency—Once users have become repeat users, can they accomplish repetitive tasks quickly and easily?
  • system performance—How nimbly does the user interface respond when users click a button or interact with the product? If it’s slow, designers have a part to play in improving the total experience, including system response times when user are performing tasks.
  • delight—Does the product delight users? If you can instill an emotional connection to a product in users, they will champion your product and share its virtues.

“To me, though, the bigger question is not how we know a product has a great design. It’s how you get there—in other words, what it takes to produce great user experiences repeatably.

“The large majority of well-designed products have been designed following a user-centered design (UCD) approach. In this process, user researchers first identify user task flows, challenges, and emotional triggers, providing insights that will inform the proposed design solution. Then UX designers leverage this research in their designs, ensuring that they are both easy to use and satisfy the emotional needs of the user. And finally, usability specialists validate the designs through usability testing, or evaluative research. This basic approach pretty consistently results in useful, usable products.

However, while usability is absolutely necessary, it’s not always sufficient. If you want to produce a truly great design, you’ll need a few additional ingredients. First, you need great researchers and designers. Where do these artisans come from? They can come from anywhere—from any background or any institution. The reality, though, is that most great designers have an education in Human Computer Interaction, whether through formal education or independent study. They are steeped in the general mindset that they’re not just building a user interface. Rather, they understand their users’ needs and optimize their designs for those users—and have years of practice doing just that.

“In my experience,” continues Jim, “the biggest obstacle to great design is that most companies have typical Web developers create a user interface and assume that it will be fine. Just because the user interface is the easiest part of any application to build—it generally takes only 10–20% of the effort that coding the back-end system requires—many leaders believe that it’s easy to design a user interface well. This is far from the truth. It’s amazing to me that—even after experiencing examples of great design over several decades and seeing the growth of User Experience into a more mature discipline—so many still believe this. While you may be able to build a user interface quickly, it may not serve its users’ needs well. Great UX design requires skilled UX teams, and companies must give these teams the resources and the deference that they deserve if they want to have user interfaces that differentiate their products. If they don’t, they’ll probably get a user interface that sucks, and they’ll have to redesign it.

“It’s still far too common for companies to say that they want to invest in User Experience and differentiate their products through design, when they really want to produce user interfaces on a shoestring budget. They think that they can hire one designer or one UX leader and get great user experiences. It’s just not that easy! Or, companies may say that they want to be the new Apple or Amazon of their marketplace, but their level of investment does not reflect their stated goals.

“Finally, to produce great user experiences repeatably, you need a UX leader whose voice is equal to that of the leaders in Product Management and Engineering. You need a leader who knows how to structure an organization in the right way. One of a UX leader’s goals is to identify and put the right processes in place, ensuring that User Experience is a key part of the process. Unfortunately, if User Experience reports into Product Management, for example, Product Managers may force the UX team to compromise on design—meaning you’ll get almost good, but not great user interfaces.

“So, as I said at the outset, great design produces great user experiences, and User Experience is multilayered. I’ll leave off with this note: User Experience, as a discipline, hurts itself deeply when UX professionals provide contradictory answers about how to produce great user experiences. As Matthew Holloway said in his keynote address at UX STRAT 2014, other disciplines don’t do this. Marketing has a clear message and value proposition. So do Engineering, Product Management, and Quality Assurance Testing. What’s ours? Let’s make sure we can articulate our message clearly, simply, and consistently. Then maybe more organizations will recognize what it takes to repeatably produce great user experiences!”

The Nature of Great UX Design

Dan and Jo suggest, “Great UX design

  • meets user needs that a business fully understands and nurtures
  • maps to business needs, whose improvement we can track over time
  • connects to data points that speak to the product or service story
  • uses a well-defined and well-understood design framework that scales well and promotes consistent and usable interactions
  • leverages design patterns that promote useful, usable, and delightful interactions
  • maps to well-defined design principles that connect to brand principles and business goals and directions
  • undergoes continuous improvement through customer and business feedback
  • tries out new ideas and conducts experiments that do not disrupt the core value
  • is led and owned by people who are well educated and grounded in deep knowledge of design foundations
  • is visible and improves through structured and balanced critique”

To learn more about these principles, Dan and Jo recommend that you read their recent UXmatters article, “Designing Projects for Success: A More Humane UX Practice.” 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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