10 essential UI (user-interface) design tips

Memorize these 10 guidelines if you want to build elegant, easy to use, and human-centered user interface designs.

A website is much more than a group of pages connected by links. It’s an interface, a space where different things — in this case, a person and a company’s or individual’s web presence — meet, communicate, and affect each other. That interaction creates an experience for the visitor, and as a web designer, it’s your job to ensure that experience is as good as it can possibly be.

And the key to that is to think about your user first, foremost, and always.

Thankfully, while web design is a relatively new discipline, it owes a lot to the scientific study of human-computer interaction (HCI). And these 9 handy guidelines straight from HCI research will help you focus on your users when going through the design process.

Interface design, which focuses on the layout of functionality of interfaces, is a subset of user experience design, which focuses on the bigger picture: that is, the whole experience, not just the interface.

1. Know your users

Above all else, you have to know who your users are — inside and out. That means knowing all the demographic data your analytics app(s) can pull, yes. But more importantly, it means knowing what they need, and what stands in the way of them achieving their goals.

Getting to that level of empathy requires more than careful analysis of stats. It requires getting to know the people who use your website. It means speaking with them face to face, watching them use your product (and maybe others), and asking them questions that go deeper than, “What do you think of this design?”

What are their goals? What stands in the way of them achieving those goals? How can a website help them overcome or work around those challenges?

Don’t stop at knowing what your users want. Dig deeper and find out what they need. After all, desires are just outgrowths of needs. If you can address a user’s deep-seated need, you’ll address their wants while also fulfilling more fundamental requirements.

The insights you’ll uncover from analyzing data and speaking with users will inform every decision you make, from how people use your interface to what types of content you’ll highlight within that interface.

2. Define how people use your interface

Before you design your interface, you need to define how people will use it. With the increasing prevalence of touch-based devices, it’s a more pivotal concern than you might think. Just look at

Tinder: the app’s user experience is literally defined by the ease and impulsivity of a simple swipe.

People use websites and apps in two ways: directly (by interacting with the interface elements of the product) and indirectly (by interacting with ui elements external to the product).

  • ‍Tapping a button
  • Swiping a card
  • Dragging and dropping an item with a fingertip
  • Pointing and clicking with a mouse
  • Using key commands/shortcuts
  • Typing into a form field
  • Drawing on a Wacom tablet

Who your users are and what devices they use should deeply inform your decisions here. If you’re designing for seniors or others with limited manual dexterity, you wouldn’t want to lean on swiping. If you’re designing for writers or coders, who primarily interact with apps via the keyboard, you’ll want to support all the common keyboard shortcuts to minimize time working with the mouse.

3. Set expectations

Many interactions with a site or app have consequences: clicking a button can mean spending money, erasing a website, or making a disparaging comment about grandma’s birthday cake. And any time there are consequences, there’s also anxiety.

So be sure to let users know what will happen after they click that button before they do it. You can do this through design and/or copy.

  • Highlighting the button that corresponds to the desired action
  • Using a widely understood symbol (such as a trash can for a delete button, a plus sign to add something, or a magnifying glass for search) in combination with copy
  • Picking a color with a relevant meaning (green for a “go” button, red for “stop”)
  • Writing clear button copy
  • Providing directional/encouraging copy in empty states
  • Delivering warnings and asking for confirmation

For actions with irreversible consequences, like permanently deleting something, it makes sense to ask people if they’re sure.

4. Anticipate mistakes

> To err is human; to forgive, divine.

Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”

People make mistakes, but they shouldn’t (always) have to suffer the consequences. There are two ways to help lessen the impact of human error:

  1. Prevent mistakes before they happen
  2. Provide ways to fix them after they happen

You see a lot of mistake-prevention techniques in ecommerce and form design. Buttons remain inactive until you fill out all fields. Forms detect that an email address hasn’t been entered properly. Pop-ups ask you if you really want to abandon your shopping cart (yes, I do, Amazon — no matter how much it may scar the poor thing).

Anticipating mistakes is often less frustrating than trying to fix them after the fact. That’s because they occurbefore the satisfying sense of completion that comes with clicking the “Next” or “Submit” button can set in.

That said, sometimes you just have to let accidents happen. That’s when detailed error messages really come into their own.

When you’re writing error messages, make sure they do two things:

  1. Explain the problem. E.g., “You said you were born on Mars, which humans haven’t colonized. Yet.”
  2. Explain how to fix it. E.g., “Please enter a birthplace here on Earth.”

Note that you can take a page from that same book for non-error situations. For instance, if I delete something, but it’s possible to restore it, let me know that with a line of copy like “You can always restore deleted items by going to your Trash and clicking Restore.”

The principle of anticipating user error is called the poka-yoke principle. Poka-yoke is a Japanese term that translates to “mistake-proofing.”

5. Give feedback — fast

In the real world, the environment gives us feedback. We speak, and others respond (usually). We scratch a cat, and it purrs or hisses (depending on its moodiness and how much we suck at cat scratching).

All too often, digital interfaces fail to give much back, leaving us wondering whether we should reload the page, restart the laptop, or just fling it out the nearest available window.

So give me that loading animation. Make that button pop and snap back when I tap it — but not too much. And give me a virtual high-five when I do something you and I agree is awesome.

UI/UX Designer, Frontend Developer