If you’re a new practitioner to the field of UX design and planning to conduct usability testing as part of your design’s evaluation, you’re likely mindful of the importance, time, and expense involved in such an endeavor. Ensuring that your UI prototype is well executed from the outset will help to reduce unnecessary errors and hopefully reduce the number of design iterations required. Applying UI design guidelines effectively from the outset as part of your design work is one way to ensure this.
When I took on my role as a UX designer, I felt a bit like a charlatan since I had no formal training in this field. While my training and customer-centric experience in the field of computer graphics was extensive and helped me develop an empathetic mindset, I felt academically disadvantaged compared to my design colleagues with respect to understanding and applying UI design guidelines. My colleagues were emphatic that UI design guidelines were not something that could be applied in a “one size fits all” fashion. That is, the guidelines needed to be assessed for their applicability to a particular situation in order to be applied effectively, as something required for one situation might not be applicable in another.
How then could I gain some background into the many existing and universally accepted UI design guidelines in order to apply them effectively?
I was fortunate to attend the 30th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) and attended a session called: Designing with the Mind in Mind which turned out to be what I was looking for.
The session was conducted by Jeff Johnson, who authored the book titled: Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules. In his book, the author provides a useful primer on understanding the psychology of how people perceive, think, learn and act, which is the basis behind many UI design guidelines in use today. While the topic might at first sound dry and academic, it’s a lot more fun than you might think.
The author’s goal is to assist the UI design practitioner in becoming a good judge of when and where UI design guidelines can be applied in their own day-to-day practice and he uses simple, yet revealing examples to support the science he presents.
He begins by explaining that our perception is universally biased by our past experiences, the current context, and our goals.
Our past experiences unconsciously prime us for future experiences. For example, if a UI item is perceived in an ambiguous manner during a usability test, the confusion might originate from the user’s previous experience with other similar UI items. That is, the UI item is not consistent with what they have previously experienced, so confusion results.
Our perceptions are also affected by the context of the situation at hand. The author highlights the importance of context in the following example: 'Fold napkins, Polish silverware, and Wash dishes' sets a particular context and the words are interpreted in a particular way. However, when the context of the phrase is changed to 'French Napkins, Polish silverware, and German dishes', the perception of the word “Polish” is completely changed from one of “utilitarian task” to that of “language/culture”.
Our visual perception is also very goal-oriented, and our goals unconsciously cause us to filter out things that are unrelated to the task at hand. This is an excellent example for why a user might not notice a particular UI item during a usability test. It’s not that the user deliberately ignored the UI item presented to them, but rather, the user overlooked the item because they didn't perceive it as being what they were looking for in order to accomplish their task.
The author covers many other topics such as how reading is an unnatural skill, the importance that color plays in the success or failure of a UI design, the importance of an application’s vocabulary, and why we learn faster when an operation is task-focused, simple, and consistent.
I highly recommend Jeff’s book. If your goal is to design and create engaging digital user experiences, this book will provide an insightful and useful introduction to the psychological aspects you should be mindful of. Hopefully, you’ll learn a little, or a lot of information (as I did), that you can apply to your UI design work.