7 min read

Too often, as designers and developers we fail to make interfaces that are usable, fail to make software that is intuitive, and fail to make products that normal people can understand. By coating design rigour with a layer of brand fluff, and putting form over function again and again, we build products that serve nobody but the internal needs of our corporations and brands.

In this interview with Will Grant, a web technology entrepreneur and veteran, we discuss ways to solve 101 UX design problems clearly and single-mindedly. We also discuss about his upcoming book 101 UX Principles, in which Will has defined and refined what it means to build products people intuitively know how to use.

Author’s Bio

Will Grant

Will Grant is a British UI/UX expert and graduate of Birmingham City University, where he studied human computer interaction and usable design. Following his degree, he trained with Jakob Nielsen and Bruce Tognazzini, pioneers in UX design.

Will has been building intuitive usable software products since the birth of the consumer web over 20 years ago, through to the present day, where Will’s work has reached more than a billion users. He is the co-founder and the design lead at UX-focused analytics tool Prodlytic.

Key takeaways:

  • The vast majority of UX is still about concepts, journey and the tasks we help users to achieve. The tools to deliver great UX have changed, but UX is still about familiarity, consistency and empathy.
  • The 101 UX Principles are a shortcut for UX professionals. Designers can apply them to their products and make usable software 99% of the time for 99% of users.
  • Over reliance on ‘brand’ and internal goals, trying to reinvent the wheel, and forgetting to put oneself in the place of the user are some common reasons why UX design fails.
  • Many UX people forget that design – UI design in particular – isn’t art, it’s design to perform a function: to serve users.
  • Follow Will’s 10 commandments for effective UX design to create more usable and successful products. There’s another 91 in the book 101 UX Principles too.

Full Interview

Of the 100+ UX design principles that you explore in your new book, if we asked you to pick the top 10, what would those be? Will’s 10 commandments for effective UX design, so to speak.

  1. Test with real users
  2. Don’t join the dark side
  3. Make your buttons look like buttons
  4. Label your icon buttons
  5. Use 2 font families, maximum
  6. Make ‘blank slates’ more than just empty views
  7. Hide ‘advanced’ settings from most users
  8. Decide if an interaction should be obvious, easy, or possible
  9. Anyone can be a UX professional
  10. Use device-native input features where possible

Just following these 10 and applying them to your software design will create more usable, successful products. There’s another 91 great commandments in the book too.

Will, as this book is about 101 UX Principles, what makes your principles right?

Nothing is perfect, but these principles are a ‘shortcut’ for UX professionals. Instead of reinventing the wheel, designers can apply these principles to their products and make usable software 99% of the time for 99% of users.

I’ve spent over 20 years, since the birth of the consumer web, building interfaces for 100s of products and over a billion users. My approach isn’t perfect, but it has been tested and proven to work at scale.

This guide will help you avoid common mistakes and start with a product that’s extremely usable and intuitive – for the widest possible section of users.

Why do people keep making UX mistakes?

It’s usually a combination of factors; over reliance on ‘brand’ and internal goals, trying to reinvent the wheel, and forgetting to put yourself in the place of the user.

Too often the internal goals of an organisation supercede the design teams who are genuinely trying to ‘fight for the user’. The CEO wants it to look a certain way (but he/she has no design background), or the marketing team decide that a certain typeface has to be used (even though it’s unreadable).

The paradox is that, as UX and UI people, we’re over-exposed to components, controls, patterns and interfaces in general. It’s the curse of knowledge and we are the last people who should be designing interfaces — unless we can do the hard bit: objectivity.

Name a big company that gets UX right, and one that gets it wrong

This is impossible, even today after 20+ years of consumer web products, the experience people see is wildly different from product to product – regardless of the company.
Generally, large companies with lots of internal bureaucracy and hierarchy produce end products that are the least usable – this is where small, nimble startups can often produce a better product: not because they are ‘better’ overall, but because they haven’t yet lost sight of the importance of UX.

And, crucially, startup teams are less encumbered by legacy baggage and are more free to follow best practice in design.

Who inspires you the most with the UX community?

Donald Norman & Jakob Nielsen have both been hugely influential to me. Don Norman’s book “The design of everyday things”  pretty much kicked off and ‘invented’ the whole field of human-computer interaction, which these days we call ‘UX’.
Nielsen & Norman are sometimes derided as ‘too purist’ but that’s what appeals to me most. Stripping back interfaces to the bare minimum, removing clutter and making things simple are things I try to do in my work every day.
I worked for a boss in my early 20’s – he wasn’t a designer – but he did fly into an apoplectic rage at the slightest mistake I might make. It taught me to check, check and re-check my designs and despite him being a horrible person, my work is better for it.

What was the last app that made you throw down your phone in frustration?

Easy – it was the HSBC app, yesterday, with it’s dreadful ‘update’ process.

Apple have gone to great lengths to build an App Store which auto-updates your apps, in the background while you’re asleep and your phone is on charge.

HSBC decided that their banking app should do its own half-assed updates, whenever it feels like it, inside the app – just when you open the app and you’re about to use it.

A classic example of reinventing the wheel, building a new experience that fails because nobody has thought of the user – only of their internal needs.

In your more than two decades of UX design experience, how has the web evolved from a user experience perspective? What were some of the biggest surprises in UX design trends for you? What design ideas have remained unaltered by time?

I think it’s remarkable how little has changed – in terms of design ideas that ‘just work’ at least. Yes, software has changed massively over that time – from basic websites and browsers on desktop computers through to web app and native apps on smartphones and tablets. However, the vast majority of UX is still about the concepts, the journey and the tasks you’re helping the user to achieve. The tools to deliver great UX have changed, but UX itself is still about familiarity, consistency and empathy.

With emerging technologies like machine learning, AR, VR, IoT etc increasingly impacting how we design for the web, where do you see UX design heading in the coming years? What are some general rules worth keeping in mind when designing for the future? What are some opportunities and challenges you foresee for UX designers?

It’s more of a hope than a prediction, but perhaps us designers will stop doing things because we can and start asking if we should. A greater sense of social responsibility, and a reduction in sneaky ‘dark pattern’ UX would be great for everyone.

Somewhere along the way, many UX people forgot that design – UI design in particular – isn’t art, it’s design to perform a function: to serve users.

Too many designers are slavishly following the latest design trend, applying ‘flat design’ to every app, or trying to be different for the sake of it, with custom-designed interfaces and arbitrary visual metaphors.

The solution is simple, too: try and be objective, fight for the user, and test with real users as you go. 101 UX Principles provides 101 ways to solve 101 UX problems clearly and single-mindedly.

There are 1000s of methods to apply to each and every interaction in your product, but this book is a ‘shortcut’ to a method that works. The book is available to pre-order now and is expected to be published soon.

Read Next:

What UX designers can teach Machine Learning Engineers? To start with: Model Interpretability

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A UX strategy is worthless without a solid usability test plan




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