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10 best usability heuristics for user interface design

By Academy Xi

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The ultimate goal of the UI designer is to create interfaces that offer an intuitive, easy experience that doesn’t require external assistance to engage with the product. Here are ten usability principles for successful UI design, as established by Jakob Neilsen.

What does heuristics mean and who is Jakob Neilsen?

Glad you asked:

Heuristics is another word for processes or methods. Jakob Neilsen is a ‘user advocate’ and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group (which he set up with Dr. Donald A. Norman, who used to be the VP of research at Apple). Nielsen, that’s Dr Neilsen to you, established what is known as the ‘discount usability engineering movement’, which focuses on ‘fast and cheap improvements of user interfaces’. 

Nielsen has invented a number of usability methods and evaluation processes, including the following ten guidelines he created in 1990 with colleague Rolf Molich to help develop more intuitive, easy to use and accessible digital interfaces:

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Consistency and standards
  3. Match between system and the real world
  4. Error prevention
  5. User control and freedom
  6. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  7. Recognition rather than recall
  8. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation

1. Visibility of system status

what is usability heuristics This principle is all about keeping the user informed at each step of interaction with the digital interface. By keeping a user informed about every action they take, it clarifies and confirms what to expect next and the outcome of their previous actions. Keeping a user clearly informed makes the design of the product more predictable, which in turn gives a user a sense of familiarity and ultimately trust. It also helps users to feel in control of the system. System status updates also guide the user to the next steps they need to take. Some examples include: 
  • Progress bars when you’re downloading a document
  • Communicating how far off a shopper is from qualifying for ‘free shipping’
  • Netflix ‘countdown’ informs you of how long until the next episode will start (which is currently 5 seconds – user testing revealed the shorter the wait, the more content consumed…don’t we all know it!)

2. Consistency and standards

To build trust in a product, brand or experience, consistency and standards are required. When users interact with a product it’s important that they are engaging with a consistent tone of voice and use of language throughout each step of their interaction. This also applies to any symbols or icons – keep them consistent for clarity. 

An example of this in action are the icons used throughout Microsoft Office suite.

3. Match between system and the real world

usability heuristics for ui

The idea with this principle is to do whatever possible to get the system reflecting the users real world experience. 

This can be achieved in a number of ways, including tone of voice and language choice – keeping any tech or marketing jargon out of the picture if it’s not familiar to the target user. Visually, always choose images, illustrations and icons that reflect the user’s real-world experience to ensure that they will easily understand what you are trying to communicate.

Another consideration is the order of components. Keep to a process which is logical to the user group and their life experiences.

Some examples include:

  • Text highlighter function (mimics real world experience of using a highlighter)
  • E-readers (flick the page to turn it, like reading a hardcopy book)
  • Trash icon on your desktop (drag and drop files into the bin as with real garbage)

4. Error prevention

Thoughtful UI design should always attempt to prevent problems for the user. Let’s say a student accidentally deletes their PhD thesis document that they’ve been working on for years. 

Panic stations!

Give them a safety buffer before the action is finalised so they have the opportunity to confirm, or backtrack from the decision.

A good old pop up message will do the trick!

5. User control and freedom

Well considered UI design should offer suggestions for options a user can select, as opposed to dictating their actions. Ideally, the design should provide as much user freedom as possible, as long as the options are in line with requirements of the system and its functionality.

Let’s also keep in mind that humans change their minds and make mistakes – and provide clear options for users to back track, undo and redo actions as they need. Incorporating these elements will give users control and freedom, both important for quality UI design.

Some examples include:

  • The ‘undo’, ‘redo’ option within Google docs. It might’ve been used a few times writing this article…
  • Pop up messages. ‘Leave site? Changes you made may not be saved’
  • E-commerce order quantities – ability to increase/decrease to set desired amounts

6. Aesthetic and minimalist design

Aesthetic and minimalist design Functionality always trumps aesthetics when it comes to UI design. Any unnecessary elements within the interface can prove to be distracting for users and will compete with the aspects that you want them to engage with.  Keep it simple!

7. Recognition rather than recall

Dr Nielsen’s approach to user support is all about making experiences easier. Reducing the mental load is part of this, so where possible, it’s important to create options that are visually recognisable, so users aren’t having to delve into their memory recall.  Interface navigation needs to include clear, recognisable cues and triggers, which are super simple to see and access. A great example of this exists within Google Docs – by hovering over menu items you get a pop up for each item which tells you what the item is or does.

8. Flexibility and efficiency of use

All UI design should cater for various levels of experience with your product. Keep it clear and simple, assuming that any user’s experience might be their first interaction. You can incorporate flexible options that enable the user to personalise their interaction so it reflects their level of understanding and experience with your product.  System shortcuts is a strong example of this principle. If you’re a beginner with a system, you might need to use the different functions multiple times before you become aware of shortcuts that could be useful to save you time. Adobe Photoshop provides flexibility for users by enabling advanced users to create their own series of shortcuts, which reflect how they want to use the software.

9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors

You click on a link and get a ‘404 error’ message pop up on screen. What next? Be sure to give users clear guidance. Tell them, without jargon or tech talk, what the issue is and what their options are to solve it.

10. Help and documentation

All of Neilsen’s principles are geared to help users easily navigate products and avoid errors without external support, however it is still good practice to provide the necessary help that is accessible at any time. Make it very easy for users to locate help and relevant support documentation and keep it user task focused. Ensure that clear steps are included so there is no ambiguity about how to get the outcome they want or need.

How to start a career in User Interface Design

Ready to put Neilsen’s principles into practice?

UI Designers are in high-demand across all industries with apps and websites playing an integral role for the success of many businesses. 

Learning this fast-growing discipline is a fantastic way to future-proof your career. At Academy Xi we offer the following industry-designed training options:

If you have any questions, our experienced team is here to discuss your training options. Speak to a course advisor today and take the first steps in your UI Design journey.

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