So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles

[This is part of a series titled So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer. Check out the previous post, Step 1: Resources]

Five months ago I wrote a post titled, “So you wanna be a user experience designer,” in which I gathered all of the resources in my UX arsenal: publications and blogs, books, local events, organizations, mailing lists, webinars, workshops, conferences, and schooling. My intent was to give aspiring user experience designers, or even those on the hunt for additional inspiration, a launching pad for getting started.

The response has been pretty remarkable — the link continues to be sent around the Twitterverse and referenced in the blogosphere. I’m really pleased that so many people have found it to be a useful aid in their exploration of User Experience.

In the post I promised that it would be the beginning of a series, and I’m happy to report that Step 2 is finally here: Guiding Principles.

“Guiding principles” are the broad philosophy or fundamental beliefs that steer an organization, team or individual’s decision making, irrespective of the project goals, constraints, or resources.

I have collected a set of guiding principles for user experience designers, to encourage behaviors that I believe are necessary to being a successful practitioner, as well as a set of guiding principles for experience design — which I think anyone who touches a product used by humans should strive to follow.

DISCLAIMER: These lists are meant to be both cogent and concise. While there are certainly other universal truths that I may not have noted, the principles below are the ones I consider to be most critical to designing user experiences and are often the most neglected.

I would love to hear your additions and edits in the comments.

5 Guiding Principles for Experience Designers

  1. Understand the underlying problem before attempting to solve it

  2. Your work should have purpose — addressing actual, urgent problems that people are facing. Make sure that you can clearly articulate the core of the issue before spending an ounce of time on developing the design. The true mark of an effective designer is the ability to answer “why?”. Don’t waste your time solving the wrong problems.

  3. Don’t hurt anyone

  4. It is your job to protect people and create positive experiences. At the very minimum you must ensure that you do not cause any pain. The world is filled with plenty of anguish — make your life goal not to add to it.

  5. Make things simple and intuitive

  6. Leave complexity to family dynamics, relationships, and puzzles. The things you create should be easy to use, easy to learn, easy to find, and easy to adapt. Intuition happens outside of conscious reasoning, so by utilizing it you are actually reducing the tax on people’s minds. That will make them feel lighter and likely a lot happier.

  7. Acknowledge that the user is not like you

  8. What’s obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to someone else. Our thought processes and understanding of the world around us are deeply affected by our genetics, upbringing, religious and geographical culture, and past experiences. There is a very small likelihood that the people you are designing for have all the distinctive qualities that make you you. Don’t assume you innately understand the needs of your customers. How many people do you think truly understand what it feels like to be you?

  9. Have empathy

  10. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s perspective and feelings. Step outside your box and try really hard to understand the world from another person’s point of view. Go out of your way to identify with their needs. If certain things just don’t make sense to you, ask more questions. Ask as many questions as you need to until you finally understand. When you really get what makes people tick and why they do what they do, you’ll have a much easier time going to bat to make their lives better. If you aren’t trying to make people’s lives better, what are you even doing here?

20 Guiding Principles for Experience Design

  1. Stay out of people’s way
    When someone is trying to get something done, they’re on a mission. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily, don’t set up obstacles for them to overcome, just pave the road for an easy ride. Your designs should have intentional and obvious paths, and should allow people to complete tasks quickly and freely.
  2. Present few choices
    The more choices a person is presented with, the harder it is for them to choose. This is what Barry Schwartz calls The Paradox of Choice. Remove the “nice to haves” and focus instead of the necessary alternatives a person needs to make in order to greatly impact the outcome.
  3. Limit distractions
    It’s a myth that people can multitask. Short of chewing gum while walking, people can’t actually do two things simultaneously; they end up giving less attention to both tasks and the quality of the interaction suffers. An effective design allows people to focus on the task at hand without having their attention diverted to less critical tasks. Design for tasks to be carried out consecutively instead of concurrently in order to keep people in the moment.
  4. Group related objects near each other
    Layout is a key ingredient to creating meaningful and useful experiences. As a person scans a page for information, they form an understanding about what you can do for them and what they can do for themselves using your services. To aid in that learning process, and to motivate interaction, don’t force people to jump back and forth around disparate areas in order to carry out a single task. The design should be thoughtfully organized with related features and content areas appropriately chunked, and…
  5. Create a visual hierarchy that matches the user’s needs
    …by giving the most crucial elements the greatest prominence. “Visual hierarchy” is a combination of several dimensions to aid in the processing of information, such as color, size, position, contrast, shape, proximity to like items, etc. Not only must a page be well organized so that it’s easy to scan, but the prioritization of information and functionality ought to mimic real world usage scenarios. Don’t make the most commonly used items the furthest out of reach.
  6. Provide strong information scent
    People don’t like to guess. When they click around your site or product, they aren’t doing so haphazardly; they’re trying to follow their nose. If what they find when they get there isn’t close to what they predicted, chances are they’re going to give up and go elsewhere. Make sure that you use clear language and properly set expectations so that you don’t lead people down the wrong path.
  7. Provide signposts and cues
    Never let people get lost. Signposts are one of the most important elements of any experience, especially one on the web where there are an infinite number of paths leading in all directions. The design should keep people aware of where they are within the overall experience at all times in a consistent and clear fashion. If you show them where they came from and where they’re going, they’ll have the confidence to sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.
  8. Provide context
    Context sets the stage for a successful delivery. By communicating how everything interrelates, people are much more likely to understand the importance of what they’re looking at. Ensure that the design is self-contained and doesn’t break people out of the experience except for when it’s entirely necessary to communicate purpose.
  9. Avoid jargon
    Remember that the experience is about them (the customer), not you (the business). Like going to a foreign country and expecting the lady behind the counter to understand English, it’s just as rude to talk to your visitors using lingo that’s internal to your company or worse, expressions you made up to seem witty. Be clear, kind and use widely understood terminology.
  10. Make things efficient
    A primary goal of experience design is to make things efficient for the human before making things efficient for the computer. Efficiency allows for productivity and reduced effort, and a streamlined design allows more to get done in the same amount of time. Creating efficiency demonstrates a great deal of respect for your customers, and they’ll be sure to notice.
  11. Use appropriate defaults
    Providing preselected or predetermined options is one of the ways to minimize decisions and increase efficiency. But choose wisely: if you assign the defaults to the wrong options (meaning that the majority of people are forced to change the selection), you’ll end up creating more stress and processing time.
  12. Use constraints appropriately
    Preventing error is a lot better than just recovering from it. If you know ahead of time that there are certain restrictions on data inputs or potential dead ends, stop people from going down the wrong road. By proactively indicating what is not possible, you help to establish what is possible, and guide people to successful interactions. But make sure the constraints are worthwhile — don’t be overly cautious or limiting when it’s just to make things easier for the machine.
  13. Make actions reversible
    There is no such thing as a perfect design. No one and nothing can prevent all errors, so you’re going to need a contingency plan. Ensure that if people make mistakes (either because they misunderstood the directions or mistyped or were misled by you), they are able to easily fix them. Undo is probably the most powerful control you can give a person — if only we had an undo button in life.
  14. Reduce latency
    No one likes to wait. Lines suck. So do delays in an interface. Do whatever you can to respond to people’s requests quickly or else they’ll feel like you aren’t really listening. And if they really have to wait…
  15. Provide feedback
    …tell them why they’re waiting. Tell them that you’re working. Tell them you heard them and offer the next step along their path. Design is not a monologue, it’s a conversation.
  16. Use emotion
    Ease of use isn’t the only measure of a positive user experience; pleasurably is just as important. Something can be dead simple, but if it’s outrageously boring or cold it can feel harder to get through. Designs should have flourishes of warmth, kindness, whimsy, richness, seduction, wit — anything that incites passion and makes the person feel engaged and energized.
  17. Less is more
    This isn’t necessarily about minimalism, but it is important to make sure that everything in the design has a purpose. Some things are purely functional; other things are purely aesthetic. But if they aren’t adding to the overall positivity of the experience, then take it out. Reduce the design to the necessary fundamentals and people will find it much easier to draw themselves in the white space.
  18. Be consistent
    Navigational mechanisms, organizational structure and metaphors used throughout the design must be predictable and reliable. When things don’t match up between multiple areas, the experience can feel disjointed, confusing and uncomfortable. People will start to question whether they’re misunderstanding the intended meaning or if they missed a key cue. Consistency implies stability, and people always want to feel like they’re in good hands.
  19. Make a good first impression
    You don’t get a second chance! Designing a digital experience is really no different than establishing a set of rules for how to conduct yourself in a relationship. You want to make people feel comfortable when you first meet them, you want to set clear expectations about what you can and can’t offer, you want to ease them into the process, you want to be attractive and appealing and strong and sensible. Ultimately you want to ensure that they can see themselves with you for a long time.
  20. Be credible and trustworthy
    It’s hard to tell who you can trust these days, so the only way to gain the confidence of your customers is to earn it — do what you say you’re going to do, don’t over promise and under deliver, don’t sell someone out to fulfill a business objective. If you set people’s expectations appropriately and follow through in a timely matter, people will give you considerably more leeway than if they’re just waiting for you to screw them over.

The above principles are general and can be applied across many types of experiences. However some products require a more focused set of directives due to their specific audiences or brand goals. Below are examples of Guiding Principles that have been made public by some of the best known organizations. Use these as inspiration, but don’t think that just following the same instructions will yield the same results.

UX Design Principles at Major Organizations

Additional Resources

Related Posts:


  1. says

    #16, now that's what I'm talking about! Too often UX'ers focus solely on reducing frustration, and not on generating pleasure.

    This principle seems slightly at odds with #17, however. Certainly your point is taken about removing unnecessary elements (though I'd suggest “unintegral” is a better word). But nothing can be “purely” aesthetic, nor purely function. And per #16, fostering an emotion itself can (and I'd argue always should) be a “function.”

    As you posted this, I was reading Ruskin on architecture, and noted a quote which applies quite well to UX: “it is, or ought to be, a science of feeling more than of rule.”

  2. says

    Whitney… Let me second Jay's applause about including #16. This is really huge. I expect this to be one of the next big shifts in the UX design field, more of a focus on creating positive experiences rather than just preventing shitty ones. : )

    Jay… yes, an element that produces some sort of emotional affect definitely has a function. But I actually think that there is more tension between #16 and #1 than #17. Sometimes, focusing on simplicity will blind you to the possibilities for creating truly positive and possibly fun experiences. Experiences that don't suck aren't noticed, which is great. But if you want experience to drive and compel use, that experience *must* be noticed… I've noticed that people talk about experiences like this by saying, “It's great once you figure it out” or something like that. To me, that implies that there's at least some barrier of learnability there.

    But does there have to be? Can elements of a positive UX be subtle while still being noticed in some way?

  3. says

    Right on, Fred.

    I think the key is to design for the experience as a whole. Part of that is understanding what your users are trying to accomplish, in a functional sense. But if you can also understand the emotional state of your users as they approach the experience, and how they want to feel by the end of it, appropriate visual form will follow naturally.

    That shouldn't be in conflict with #1 at all. But I agree that sometimes designers equate the sentiment of #1 with a minimalist visual aesthetic, which provides very few in the way of emotional affordances.

  4. says

    This may be the most epic blog post in history. I love how you put your own twist on things and share your thoughts. Your points are spot on – but I feel they apply to more than just UX – the same is with any industry, and therefore is a must read for any professional. Well done!

  5. says

    Great work, Whitney. On the principles for designers list I'd add: Embrace Failure. It's not the designer's job to deliver all of the right answers, but to help expose the wrong ones. That's why we iterate. That's why we test. Be prepared to admit when you're wrong, and only fight for your design when you're sure you're right.

  6. says

    Great article Whitney, as always.
    Thanks for sharing your experience and for all the interesting links at the end!
    I find #5. Have empathy really challenging as many times you can’t get the answers you need in order to understand the interface you have to design.

    I strongly agree with #13 Make actions reversible though is one of the most neglected.

    What I would add on the list is to try to design long lasting interfaces rather than just try to achieve the current requirements where & if that’s possible.

  7. says

    A corollary to your Guiding Principle #1 is – If the client can't articulate the problem, you're of no use to them. How are your list of 5 and 20 different concerns?

  8. says

    Hi Whitney,

    That a great blog post for beginners. But I was a bit late to you find it.
    I’ve a query, where can I find details/blog about, how demography and culture can effect UX design process.

    Many Thanks in advance!! Will wait for more post on UX from you. :)


  9. says

    Whitney – Let me add one thing…create delight! (Similar to the rule of ‘using emotion’), …but delight is one of those reactions which can be a blend of intellect and whimsy, heart and head…

    Delight wins the user’s approval in an agreement that brings them back, again and again.

    For example, the real delight I experienced finding ‘Prezi’, the alternative to PowerPoint, continues to fuel my inspiration. There’s an aspect of ‘joy’ to delight which is an underutilized design quality.

    Thanks for sharing all these creative tips!


  10. Amber says

    Did you ever finish this series, Ms. Hess? Specifically, did you ever write step 3-7? (1- resources, 2- Guiding Principles, 3- Process, 4- Tools, 5- Transitioning from other careers, 6- Practice Landscape)

    Thank you for the information that you have provided in the first two posts, either way!

  11. says

    Wonderful resource Whitney!

    You are definitely an inspiration to someone like me just trying getting started in this field. What are resources that would be helpful for gaining experience/hands on, maybe a mentorship, in the field of UX? I know that the IAI provides a formal program, which I just registered for, but I was wondering if there are other resources for someone that likes to get guided experience and learns better with a hands on approach, like myself.

    Have a great one and hope for more of these in the future! Take Care -Iva


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Whitney Hess, Brad Nunnally. Brad Nunnally said: RT @whitneyhess: New blog post: So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles […]

  2. […] a problem is to look at where it happens. To go where the problem is. Have Empathy, as @whitneyhess said here. And using an ecumenical approach, use whatever tools you need. […]

  3. […] a problem is to look at where it happens. To go where the problem is. Have Empathy, as @whitneyhess said here. And using an ecumenical approach, use whatever tools you […]

  4. FlairBuilder says:

    8 Things Programmers Should Know About UI Design…

    ShareIn an ideal world, each big subject from the software development process would be handed to a specialized professional: UI designers, programmers, architects, database administrators etc. Unfortunately, this is not the case most of times. There a…

  5. […] Hess shares her five guiding principles for working in […]

  6. […] Pleasure and Pain » So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles (tags: ux guidelines resources) […]

  7. […] Pleasure and Pain » So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles I have collected a set of guiding principles for user experience designers, to encourage behaviors that I believe are necessary to being a successful practitioner, as well as a set of guiding principles for experience design — which I think anyone who touches a product used by humans should strive to follow. […]

  8. […] been inspired by Whitney Hess and her Guiding principles for User Experience. These concisely written principles resonated and definitely struck a chord with […]

  9. […] be syndicating some of the content from Pleasure and Pain. A couple weeks ago they republished my Guiding Principles for UX Designers post, which then in turn got picked up by’s InsideTech, a “meeting place […]

  10. […] Step 2: Guiding Principles This entry was posted in User-Experience Design, Web Design and tagged UX design, whitney hess. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed. « Website: Northlands Golf Course 10 Essential Apps for Running Your Business » […]

  11. […] Whitney Hess’s mind-bogglingly comprehensive collection of resources and guiding principles. […]

  12. […] So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles […]

  13. […] (Update: Whitney has in fact published Part 2 of that series… and it’s tremendous. It’s a series of guiding principles for user experience designers and experience design.) […]

  14. […] Whitney Hess’s mind-bogglingly comprehensive collection of resources and guiding principles. […]

  15. […] Whitney Hess’s mind-bogglingly comprehensive collection of resources and guiding principles. […]

  16. […] Whitney Hess’s mind-bogglingly comprehensive collection of resources and guiding principles. […]

  17. […] Hess’ blog post series “So you wanna be a User Experience Designer” (part 1) (part 2) outlines a fantastic list of books, blogs, events, organizations, lists, workshops, conferences, […]

  18. […] Whitney Hess’s mind-bogglingly comprehensive collection ofresources and guiding principles. […]

  19. […] Whitney Hess’s mind-bogglingly comprehensive collection of resources and guiding principles. […]

  20. […] You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer – Part 1 (Whitney Hess) So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer – Part 2 (Whitney Hess) Getting Started in User Experience Design (Fred […]

  21. […] “Group related objects near each other.” – Whitney Hess […]

  22. Design Principles…

    Durch den Vortrag “Enchant, Simplify, Amaze: Andro…

  23. A-Z of UX Design Principles…

    The A-Z of UX design principles from the big tech…

  24. […] posts from Whitney Hess give a deeper dive into more UX resources and principles for those looking to make jump into user experience […]

  25. […] posts from Whitney Hess give a deeper dive into more UX resources and principles for those looking to make jump into user experience […]

  26. Design Principles

    Durch den Vortrag “Enchant, Simplify, Amaze: Andro

  27. […] first wrote about guiding principles in 2009 in a post titled So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles, which went viral beyond my wildest imagination and gave a lot of attention to this blog that was […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *