An Event Apart: The Philosophy of UX

by May 3, 2011

In her presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Whitney Hess talked about a universal set of design principles for creating great user experiences. Here's my notes from her The Philosophy of UX talk:

  • User experience is the establishment of philosophy for how to treat people. Design principles can outline this philosophy.
  • Visual design is a philosophy about how to create an impact. Visual design principles are the foundation for how to achieve that impact. Principles like contrast, proportion, variety, balance, repetition, movement, texture, harmony, and unity form the basis by which we can discuss and evaluate visual design.
  • Why design principles? consistency of decision making, creation of shared vision, and objective evaluation of designs
  • Good design does not equal good experience. We create designs that are meant to be used over time. The quality of experience needs to be measured over prolonged usage. Design principles can help us stay on track.

Universal User Experience Principles

  • Stay out of people’s way. When someone is trying to get something done, don’t put up obstacles. Your designs should have clearly defined paths that people can traverse effortlessly.
  • Create a hierarchy that matches people’s needs. Variations in font sizes can order content appropriately. Order of use can be used to layout actions by importance. How are people approaching the page, what matters most to them? Give the most crucial elements the most prominence. Prioritize scenarios that get use.
  • Limit distractions. An effective design allows people to focus on the task at hand without having their attention diverted to other tasks. Aim for linear flows that keep people going.
  • Provide strong information scent. Give people a sense of what’s inside/within through strong visual and text cues.
  • Provide signposts and cues. Allow people to see where they are in the experience to give them confidence. Give them a sense of where they have been and where they can go.
  • Provide context. Communicate how everything inter-relates. Ensure your design is self-contained so people don’t have to jump around to understand what they are looking at.
  • Use constraints appropriately. Preventing errors is a lot better than recovering from them. Proactively indicate what is and isn’t possible. Make sure the constraints are worthwhile –don’t be overly limiting to support the structure back-end systems need.
  • Make actions reversible. Allow people to undo things to help them recover from errors. There’s no such thing as a perfect design. Nothing can prevent all errors. So allow people to easily fix mistakes.
  • Provide feedback. Tell people that you heard them. Offer the next step along the path. Design is a conversation not a monologue.
  • Make a good first impression. Designing a digital product is designing a set of rules for how to manage a relationship.

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.
  • Creating your own principles: research what’s out there, gather and list out your business goals and brand, brainstorm, narrow down to no more than 10, preferably 7, make sure they don’t overlap.
  • When to use your design principles: kick-off meetings, when prioritizing features, critiques, stakeholder presentations, resolving conflicts, post-mortems, and web metrics analysis.
  • Help make people make their lives better.