Designers need to solve problems every day, and finding the right solution involves in-depth research and carefully planned testing. It would be great to discover a one-size-fits-all approach or a secret formula that would automatically solve all our interface design issues. We might not have the answer for that yet, but we do know of certain shortcuts we can sometimes take.
8 Golden Rules for Better Interface Design
“Heuristics” are simple and efficient rules that help us form judgements and make decisions. We can think of them as being general guidelines in terms of UI best practices.
Note: these rules have their time and place, and are not a replacement for usability testing.
While Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design is probably the most popular set of heuristics out there, there are others. Ben Shneiderman created one of the greatest guides to solid interaction design called Designing the User Interface, which reveal his own collection of principles known as the “Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design”. We’re going to look at these rules today.
1. Strive for Consistency
Designing “consistent interfaces” means using the same design patterns and the same sequences of actions for similar situations. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the right use of color, typography and terminology in prompt screens, commands, and menus throughout your user journey.
Remember: a consistent interface will allow your users to complete their tasks and goals much more easily.
2. Enable Frequent Users to Use Shortcuts
Speaking of using UI rules as shortcuts, your users will benefit from shortcuts as well, especially if they need to complete the same tasks often.
Expert users might find the following features helpful:
- Function keys
- Hidden commands
- Macro facilities
3. Offer Informative Feedback
You need to keep your users informed of what is happening at every stage of their process. This feedback needs to be meaningful, relevant, clear, and fit the context.
4. Design Dialog to Yield Closure
Let me explain. Sequences of actions need to have a beginning, middle and end. Once a task is completed, give some peace of mind to your user by providing them informative feedback and well-defined options for the next step if that’s the case. Don’t keep them wondering!
5. Offer Simple Error Handling
A good interface should be designed to avoid errors as much as possible. But when errors do happen, your system needs to make it easy for the user to understand the issue and know how to solve it. Simple ways to handle errors include displaying clear error notifications along with descriptive hints to solve the problem.
6. Permit Easy Reversal of Actions
It’s an instant relief to find that “undo” option after a mistake is made. Your users will feel less anxious and more likely to explore options if they know there’s an easy way to reverse any accidents.
This rule can be applied to any action, group of actions, or data entry. It can range from a simple button to a whole history of actions.
7. Support Internal Locus of Control
First, a definition:
“In personality psychology, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events” — Julian Rotter
It’s important to give control and freedom to your users so they’re able to feel they’re in charge of the system, not the other way round. Avoid surprises, interruptions, or anything that hasn’t be prompted by the users.
Users should be the initiators of the actions rather than the responders.
8. Reduce Short-Term Memory Load
Our attention span is limited and anything we can do to make our users’ job easier, the better. It’s simpler for us to recognize information rather than recall it. Here, we can refer to one of Nielsen’s principles describing “recognition over recall”. If we keep our interfaces simple and consistent, obeying to patterns, standards and conventions, we are already contributing to better recognition and ease of use.
There are several features we can add to aid our users depending on their goals. For example, in an ecommerce environment, a list of recently viewed or purchased items.
While you should always take heuristics-based decisions with a pinch of salt, following a set of rules and guidelines will head you in the right direction and allow you to spot major usability issues early in your design process. These eight principles are applicable to most user interfaces; they are derived from own Shneiderman’s experience and have been refined over three decades. Others, such as Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman have expanded on these rules and contributed with their own variations.
You too can use these as inspiration to create your own set of heuristics, or combine the existing examples to solve your own design problems.