The 8 Golden Rules of UI Design
In the age of Twitter threads and Instagram reels, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to try out every hot trend promising to change your life. More often than not, though, it’s typically better to start at the foundations first.
Look for the golden rules — not the golden tickets.
Within the world of UI Design, there are eight golden rules. Ben Shneiderman, a professor and human-machine interaction expert, developed these rules over 35 years ago. Yet, they’re still wildly applicable to most interactive systems today.
So let’s break each one down.
1. Strive for Consistency
The first golden rule says sequences of actions should be consistent in similar situations. This means using similar colors, layouts, fonts and capitalization throughout your entire experience. This also goes for the terminology you use. (If it’s a “coupon code” in your checkout, don’t refer to it as a promo code or discount code elsewhere.)
What are the exceptions to this rule? Important or destructive actions. Will a user action inadvertently cause them to lose their progress? It’s important to convey that to them, which often means disrupting their current UI so they don’t miss it.
2. Usability for All
An effective UI design will account for user differences including age, disabilities, international variations, technological diversity as well as whether a user is a novice or expert within your system.
When it comes to accessibility, for example, tweaking colors slightly can have a huge impact on someone’s ability to read text. Another example would be thinking about how you can help a new user by giving specific explanations in a process while giving experts shortcuts that enable them to move faster.
3. Informative Feedback
Whenever a user takes action within a system, there should be interface feedback. When the action is frequent or small, the feedback should be subtle. (A +1 animation in a shopping cart is a great example of this.)
On the flip side, if a user takes a big action, the interface should respond with substantial feedback. If we do something that would completely empty our cart, the interface should provide bumpers and some hefty feedback to ensure that’s their desired action.
4. Give Closure
Action sequences should be organized into groups with a beginning, middle, and end. In doing so, users get a greater sense of accomplishment and can more easily prepare for the next group of actions they plan to take. After someone has successfully added items to their cart and gone through the checkout process, this could be a simple celebratory message.
5. Prevent Errors
As humans, we don’t like to make mistakes. Within UI design, it’s our job to try and limit the errors that our users could make so they can have as positive of an experience as possible.
Ways to help users with this include: having checks when a user initiates a destructive action, disabling inappropriate items, only enabling the correct inputs (such as numbers when asking for a telephone) and offering simple and specific instructions for recovery.
6. Easy Reversal of Action
Actions should be reversible as much as possible. This relieves any anxiety or hesitance the user may feel and also increases a user’s willingness to proceed. This could be as simple as an additional line of interface copy explaining the action can always be undone or additional functionality that allows the user to go back and edit.
7. Keep Users in Control
Users want to be in charge — especially those who are really familiar with your interface. Because of that, it should feel like the interface is always responding to their actions and requests and limit the chance for frustration. What type of frustrations? Big surprises or changes, tedious sequences, difficulty obtaining necessary information or not being able to produce the desired result that the user wants.
8. Reduce Memory Load
The final golden rule of interface design is helping users reduce memory load. Humans have limited capacity for short-term information processing and can typically remember seven (plus or minus two) chunks of information. Because of this, try to limit the amount of information users need to re-enter and keep forms compact on a single display.
Keeping these golden rules in mind as you design user interfaces will help you create experiences that users enjoy and find easy to use. While every situation will be different and need assessment, these rules are a good starting point to build from.
To read Schneiderman’s original commentary on these golden rules, visit: https://www.cs.umd.edu/users/ben/goldenrules.html.
There is also a more in-depth book co-authored by Schneiderman and others called Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction.
This blog originated from a Lean BYTES presentation given by Lean TECHniques UX Consultant, Matt Smith. Lean BYTES are short, 16-minute webinars where you can get the quick hits on a variety of development and IT-related topics. Learn more and sign up for the next one here.