UX design principles
...and best practices for better design decisions. Learning and applying these twelve UX design principles can help you make better design decisions and create usable products and systems.
Great user experience (UX) doesn’t just happen overnight.
Certain UX design principles are behind your favorite video game, a seamless onboarding experience, accessible websites, and easy-to-use interfaces.
These UX design principles can transform a design into helpful and delightful user experiences when implemented successfully. Before you know it, users will want to come back for more of your product or service.
If you’ve ever wondered about the basic principles of UX design, we’ve put together this guide for you.
Grab a cup of something hot and sit back as we take a deep dive into these principles and best practices to guide you and your team.
Whether you’re a budding UX designer or a complete beginner, think of this resource as a way to learn how to walk before you run. You can also bookmark this guide whenever you need a refresher or a dash of inspiration.
What are UX design principles?
UX design is a creative process that involves user research and rounds of iteration. The principles of UX design are a set of foundational guidelines that you can follow to craft designs and experiences around the needs and desires of your users.
The Interaction Design Foundation describes these core principles as fundamental pieces of advice to help you create easy-to-use, pleasurable designs.
These design principles take a human-centered approach, acting as a compass for design teams as they move through the process.
As accumulated wisdom and agreed-upon truths among designers, UX principles are nuanced, specific, and actionable.
Why do you need to know the principles of UX design?
Have you ever been in a design meeting where you couldn’t agree on what a button should look like or what copy to include in your forms?
Design principles help you avoid these scenarios. They can act as guidelines to return to throughout your iterative design process. These principles benefit design teams because they help you design better, develop solutions faster, and work more collaboratively.
Spending some time to understand and implement these UX design principles keeps your product or service on the right path and helps ensure you address the needs of your users while upholding your business goals.
Julie Zhuo, former VP of Product Design at Facebook (now Meta), describes the business benefit of these principles more succinctly:
"Instead of relying on gatekeepers to keep a high-quality bar, better instead that everyone gets to an agreement on a smaller set of guiding values, so that the best decisions get made in a consistent manner, scaling across many decisions, and even many designers."
12 principles of UX design explained – and how to apply them
Now that you have a better understanding and appreciation of the importance of UX design principles, let’s move on to each principle, some examples, and how you can apply them to your own design work.
1. The user comes first
One of the most important principles in UX design is understanding that the user always comes first. UX design isn’t UX without user research.
This approach starts by planning your products and services around problems you want to solve for your users and customers.
According to Hoa Loranger, VP at Nielsen Norman Group, UX design is not about shipping out things because you think they look great but pushing out products because you know they are great for your users.
With user research and input from potential customers, businesses can retain a competitive edge and create better user interfaces.
Actionable tip: Conducting design surveys to validate assumptions is a good example of always looking out for your users through research.
2. Useful, usable, and used
When designing a great user experience, your product or service should be “useful, usable, and used.” These three words make up an important foundational rule that every UX newcomer should know: the concept of use.
You may have read or heard about usability and usefulness, but used isn’t as popular.
What exactly do these terms mean in UX design?
Take a food delivery app, for example. It may be “usable” but not necessarily “useful.” Or users may find it useful, but perhaps it’s not being “used” after the initial download.
Here’s how they differ from each other:
- Useful: Helps the user accomplish a task.
- Usable: The ease at which thea user can complete the task.
- Used: Users are consistently using the product or service to help them achieve a task.
In the food delivery app example above, the concept of the use principle is accomplished when:
- Users can find their favorite pizza place in your app (usable).
- Users can order pizza from their favorite pizza restaurant (useful).
- Users are consistently using your app (used).
Actionable tip: Find out how users will adapt to your product by performing prototype tests.
3. Design for relevance
While the concept of use is crucial to meaningful user experiences, establishing relevance is equally important.
Imagine what would happen if you created a new feature that’s irrelevant to your existing users.
Whether you’re creating a new product or adding more features, test for relevance before embarking on a new project. This means gauging product-market fit and determining whether users are interested in your idea or concept.
Actionable tip: Preference testing is one of the research methods you can use to test for relevance. For example, UsabilityHub's preference tests can help you assess which design options users prefer – from logos to packaging, and more.
4. Embrace accessibility
Embracing accessibility as a UX design principle means ensuring that your product, service, or concept is accessible to as many people as possible. This includes catering to the preferences and needs of people with disabilities. For example, adding various text size options on your website.
Disabilities aren’t limited to cognitive impairments or challenges in motor function. If you factor in accessibility to your design process, you also need to understand the environmental and situational factors that might impact user experience. Screen reader compatibility or slow mobile internet are examples of such factors.
Not designing for accessibility is also a missed opportunity for profitability. According to the 2020 Annual Report on the Global Economics of Disability: Design Delight from Disability, the disability market controls over USD$13 trillion in disposable income as of 2020. They also found out that brands with the highest results in disability-driven value creation outperformed their industry competitors in terms of long-term stock price.
Actionable tip: Consult accessibility sites and guides like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Another best practice is to put your prototype in front of users with different types of accessibility.
5. Maintain consistency and familiarity
Whether you’re involved in UX or UI design, creating and maintaining consistent user experiences in your systems, concepts, and products is a two-fold principle. This includes:
- Keeping your design elements consistent in how they look and function across all products, platforms, screens, and venues.
- Consistently meeting what your users expect of how your product or service should behave based on their previous experience with your brand or similar products on the market.
When users experience consistency, it improves your product’s learnability and boosts your chances of improved customer adoption and retention rates. The principle of consistency and familiarity also helps your brand look more professional and trustworthy to your users.
Actionable tip: Stick to two to three styles of typefaces across your website and app.
6. Establish a clear hierarchy
Hierarchy is an important principle in designing a helpful user experience. It refers to how you organize and present design elements based on the order of importance, as perceived by your users.
Your hierarchy impacts how easy (or difficult) it is to navigate pages, screens, or platforms. In short, it helps users find what they need quickly.
You can further narrow down hierarchy in UX design to:
- Information architecture
- Visual hierarchy
In the simplest sense, information architecture is your site map. It includes the navigation tools and structure that helps your users move from one page or screen to another.
Meanwhile, visual hierarchy considers how to organize individual elements and lay them out on a page or screen. For instance, it places the most important part of a resource at the top of the page and formatted as bullets to make them stand out. White space in web design is another good example.
Actionable tip: Improve your site’s information architecture with card sorting. This UX research methodology helps you understand how users group information and make sense of your content. Plus, it lets you take the guesswork out of organizing categories, labels, and taxonomies. Learn how to run a card sort test in this beginner’s guide to card sorting.
7. Acknowledge the mental models of your users
Jakob Nielsen, the co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, defines a mental model as “what the user believes about the system at hand.”
How does acknowledging a user’s mental model help you make better design decisions?
People have various levels of perception about how things should be. For example, some users may not be comfortable entering their credit card details on their mobile phones. Instead, they prefer to do it in their computer browser, where the user interface looks more trustworthy to them.
As a result, knowing what your users think about your idea, concept, or product will help you create experiences that make sense to them.
A quick note: This UX design principle shouldn’t stop you from developing innovative design solutions. While you may encounter resistance when introducing new ideas or experiences, a thorough understanding of your users’ mental models and beliefs can help you introduce novel systems or interactions more sparingly.
Actionable tip: Perform first-click testing. First-click tests can give you information about a user’s mental model and expectations when taken to a page or interface.
First clicks that occur in unexpected places can highlight needed improvements to your design or give you information for future design decisions.
8. Consider user control and freedom
How does the user control and freedom principle look in action?
Give users flexibility when interacting with your product or service. However, too much information or too many buttons can also cause overwhelm. For this reason, users should be able to go back to a step, undo a change, or leave a task.
It all boils down to maintaining a balance between user control and the freedom to undo, backtrack, or abandon without going through a lengthy process.
Actionable tip: Incorporate confirmation boxes and make your cancel button easy to spot, like in the below example from MailChimp. It also helps to make your exit links more discoverable.
9. Design for context
In the broadest sense, context is a set of interrelated circumstances or conditions that apply to something that occurs.
For UX designers, no design exists in a vacuum. Context is a primary consideration in understanding the behaviors, intentions, and drives of your users. It grounds ideas into reality and gives insight into what users deem the most important to them. Most of all, context can also help your brand gain a competitive advantage.
Some of the questions to ask when taking context into account in your design are:
- Where might the user be while using the product or service? What environmental factors might interfere with their experience? (e.g. noise)
- What devices might the user be using to access and interact with the product?
- What emotional state might the user be in when interacting with the product?
An excellent example of designing for context is localization. Localization means adapting a product or service from one market to another. This could include reconsidering the idioms you use in your copy or changing units of measurement in your product listings.
Let's put this into practice using another noteworthy example of why context matters – designing a healthcare app for seniors. As a designer, this means you might need to pay special attention to the following:
- Color variations
- Clarity of icons
- Simple navigation
- Text size options
- Text-to-speech options
Actionable tip: Perform contextual inquiries as part of your initial design process. Jim Ross, Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab, admits that contextual inquiries can be challenging. The key is to be more flexible in your methods rather than trying to make them as perfect as possible. Ross enumerates the various steps designers can take to make contextual inquiries easier in the same article.
10. Minimize cognitive load when possible
In cognitive psychology, cognitive load is the amount of effort your working memory can use at once.
Actions or tasks with high cognitive loads have a steep learning curve and overly complex interactions. As a result, you're likely to give up and become more confused while using a product. When there’s minimal cognitive load, you're likely to stick to the task.
Clear and helpful onboarding instructions are a good example of helping users finish the process. This makes them more compelled to take on the next steps. In the example below from the Duolingo app, you can pick a daily goal out of a small list of options.
Actionable tip: Facilitate actions and make them as barrier-free as possible by simplifying interfaces and grouping similar information together. Progressive disclosure, or showing users only a few of the most relevant options or all options when they want them, is also worth looking into in order to minimize cognitive load.
10. Tell a story with your design
What do stories have to do with design? A lot, it turns out.
A story is one of the most powerful ways that us humans communicate with each other, make sense of the world around us, and find meaning. In short, our brains are story-driven.
According to Donna Lichaw in her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love, once a designer thinks and works like a storyteller, the more they can create engaging user experiences.
A good story has a structure, so it makes sense to incorporate it into your design. This structure, often referred to as a narrative or story act, involves a chronological series of events.
Here’s what it looks like in a usage story when designing products:
- Exposition: This is the current state of things for the user.
- Inciting incident or problem: A trigger or event that will kick-start the user’s journey in your product.
- Rising action: A series of steps the user undertakes to accomplish a task in your product.
- Crisis: Hurdles the user can encounter, like the payment page requiring them to enter sensitive billing information.
- Climax or resolution: A point in the story where the crisis or problem is solved.
- Falling action or denouement: This happens when the user finishes a user flow.
- The end: The final point where the user’s needs are met or problems are solved.
Actionable tip: Learn story mapping with your design team. In this activity, you bring your user stories to life through visuals like diagrams and storyboards. Story mapping is also helpful when presenting to clients and stakeholders, especially if you have to make a business case for certain design solutions.
12. Always seek user feedback
This UX design principle is at the end of the list for a reason – to highlight how user feedback is the heart and soul of UX design. You can’t call it UX design unless you seek and receive feedback from users.
Gathering user feedback is important for three reasons:
- It helps you gain valuable data and insights to make your product more user-centric, delightful, and easy to use.
- It helps make your users feel heard, which builds trust between them and your brand.
- It promotes innovation.
One good way to encourage users to provide meaningful, helpful feedback is to act on the feedback you’re receiving.
For example, you can improve your app’s dashboard page after testing iconography. Afterward, you can inform users that the improvements were implemented because of their feedback. This helps restore their faith in your product, gain their trust, and let them know that their opinion matters to you.
Actionable tip: Uncover design issues early and prevent wasted efforts by testing often and with real users. A user testing platform like UsabilityHub can help you scale your user research quickly because you can either recruit from your participants or from our integrated panel.
Tests in UsabilityHub include prototype testing, card sorting, five second tests, preference tests, first click tests, and more.
Your next step: Put these UX design principles to work
No matter what you’re designing – from a simple registration form to a government service – learning and applying these UX design principles can help you make helpful products and systems.
UsabilityHub has all the tools you need to implement these UX design principles and best practices. Try it for free.
Frequently asked questions about UX design principles
What are UX design principles?
The principles of UX design are a set of foundational guidelines that you can follow to craft designs and experiences around the needs and desires of your users.
Why do you need to know the main principles of UX design?
UX design principles can act as guidelines to return to throughout your iterative design process. Principles benefit design teams because they help us design better, develop solutions faster, and work more collaboratively.
What are the main principles of UX design?
The main principles of UX design are: The user comes first; useful, usable, and used; design for relevance; embrace accessibility; maintain consistency and familiarity; establish a clear hierarchy; acknowledge the mental model of your users; consider user control and freedom; design for context; minimize cognitive load; tell a story; always seek user feedback.
Kai has been creating content for healthcare, design, and SaaS brands for over a decade. She also manages content (like a digital librarian of sorts). Hiking in nature, lap swimming, books, tea, and cats are some of her favorite things. Check out her digital nook or connect with her on LinkedIn.