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Understanding Users - 3 Non-Design Principles Applied in UX Design

Catalina Butnaru - Monday, May 09, 2011 |

Our understanding of people is relative to the context we find ourselves in and often limited to it. It's a basic cognitive bias. In web design, the context is usually the interface and our understanding of the people interacting with it is described by usability metrics. Nonetheless, a UX designer's understanding of people needs to go beyond the context of user analytics and usability metrics.

In this article we are going to talk about 3 essential non-design principles that designers need to be aware of when creating interfaces that are meant to be compelling and accessible at the same time.

Day 303: My Identity
My Identity by: Kathryn

Less Is More

A Non-Design Principle that Users Relate To

One way in which you can understand users better is by understanding how the mind works. Great designers like Bill Atkinson, neuro-psychologist by training, showed that innovation can happen by combining your design and programming skills with a deeper understanding of users. His work as one of the first developers in the Apple development team lead to the creation of the first user-friendly interfaces for graphic applications - MacPaint and QuickDraw. He used simple symbols to designate the tools and their functionality, so people can easily identify what those tools were and how one was supposed to use them. He worked closely with Larry Tesler who previously described how he came with the idea that designing simple elements (metaphors of real life environments) would be more effective and easy to implement in human-computer interfaces and they would make more sense to people.

Talking about simplicity with @sickdesigner on Twitter

Simplicity is a non-design principle we need to be aware of when designing user interfaces. We had a few interesting responses through Twitter to our question about whether simplicity is the key to elegant user interface design or not, and we selected one of those responses in the image above that points to this conclusion: simplicity makes sense to people. It's easier for our mind to absorb information and perform complex tasks later on, if we work with instructions that are easy to understand. In a lot of cases, the argument in favor of simplicity will be supported by usability metrics as well. For a UI designer, simplicity is a core principle behind user friendly interfaces, and some of the most important people in the history of interface design have been using it from before the term "user-friendly design" was first employed.

Exploration Is Good

How Guided Discovery Makes Sense to Users

We talked about discovery previously in our post about game mechanics in UX design. Earlier this year we noticed a couple of UX designers debating around the problem of guided or non-guided patterns of interaction. To some extent, users need to clearly identify and understand the way different UI elements behave and how they need to use them to experience the system as it was designed to function.

Parallax scrolling on Nike Better World

Users, already familiar with common navigation techniques, are unlikely to experience the excitement of discovery by going through a typical navigation menu. There are a couple of designer and non-designer websites that still make the best of menu navigation, and still, the feeling of familiarity is always there.

In order to bring back the excitement and focus associated with discovery, one can utilize uncommon navigation techniques, depending on the type of website or marketing campaign. Two noticeable examples showcasing excellent uses uncommon navigation techniques are Nike Better World (parallax scrolling with HTML5) and Magnum Chocolates Pleasure Hunt (showcasing an excellent practice for integrating a RIA experience with web design). Go and see for yourself how fun these unfamiliar navigation techniques can be by visiting the two websites!

RIA integration: Magnum Chocolates Pleasure Hunt

Why User Scenarios are Not Enough

An Interpersonal Difference That Matters to UX Designers

The problem with having user scenarios as a cornerstone in UX design is that it gets in the way of inclusive design practices. Interpersonal differences should not be immediately translated in different user scenarios, unless you're actually targeting a very specific type of person. Even so, if your user profile is only relevant for a particular niche of you client's customers, you can still consider interpersonal differences that are tightly connected to user experience.

Customizable dashboard built with HTML5 at GeckoBoard

Task orientation refers to a user's work style. Some users are more concerned with achieving goals than with managing resources and organizing the steps required to reach that goal. Every person has a different action plan when it comes to accomplishing a task, although in a user scenario approach, all users fit into the same user profile. Task orientation is extremely important in UI design, and it shows that user scenarios do not always help you to completely understand a user's style in working with the interface you want to create. Giving users multiple ways to accomplish a task or providing a customizable interface can make your website or webapp more user-friendly.

Endnote: Understanding users beyond the context of web-based interaction should be a priority for UX designers. Usability metrics, user scenarios and analytics are contextual tools that help you build websites that work well, but a deeper understanding of users will enable you to use these tools efficiently. If you liked this article, please share it with your friends and let us know your opinion on this subject!

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