Rupert Hughes

8 Words For UX Professionals To Live By

2 November 2009, Rupert Hughes

At its best an aphorism neatly encapsulates a complicated concept in a few short words. Over my years in the world of web user experience, I’ve come across two (four words in each) that really help to explain what UX is all about and which should be tattooed on the insides of the eyelids of web designers, information architects, software developers, copywriters and anyone else involved in the creation of websites.

Back in the late 90s, when Netscape Navigator was the browser du jour and every second person in a Soho wine bar was an Internet entrepreneur, I often found myself in meetings cast in the role of user champion. This usually entailed sparring with the IT department whilst trying to articulate why their latest web app was not going to work for anyone who hadn’t been looking over the shoulder of the developer coding the software.

User experience as a web discipline hadn’t really been invented then, so more often than not this meant falling back on the language of PC interface design and talking about subjective, half-understood concepts like user-friendliness and intuitive design. The more enlightened people realised that to make something work well you had to put yourself in the heads of people who hadn’t had the benefit of a computer science degree and 5 years’ mucking around with a 14.4k modem, but many saw this as a dark art best left to actors and con artists.

Don’t Make Me Think
Then, in 2000, Steve Krug brought out his seminal book on website usability which in the four short words of its title beautifully captured the essence of usability in a way that even the most logical mind could understand and relate to.
Don’t Make Me Think suddenly made it easy to explain interface design and, as importantly, provided a framework for how to get there. The book’s accessible style makes it easy to read and it’s something I recommend to anyone new to web UX.

First, Do No Harm
The second aphorism actually comes from the medical world. I first heard it applied to web usability in a seminar given by Bruce Tognazzini of the Nielsen Norman Group, back in 2007. Where “Don’t make me think” focuses the mind on interface design, First, Do No Harm relates much more to the functional, hidden components of a website; the things that make a site seem intuitive and simple to use and the kinds of thing that users only notice when they’re not happening.

The most obvious examples of sites causing harm relate to forms, such things as making a user retype an entire form when the submission has failed due to a problem in a single field (thankfully something you see considerably less of these days). Causes of harm can be minimised by the use of session cookies so, for example, when a clothing website’s customer puts a size 12 dress in her shopping basket, the site should remember what size she is when she later adds a cardigan to her order and not force her to retype it.

The most useful thing about these two sayings is that they’re great sanity checkers. Working on a website, by its very nature makes you an expert user (especially if you’ve specced or built the site) and it can be hard to get sufficient perspective to see whether less knowledgeable users will be able to use it. That perspective is much easier to find if at every stage of the design process, from flat visual through functional prototype to release candidate, you ask yourself:  “How much do I have to think about using it?” and “Where am I doing harm?”.