Introduction to User Interface Design: 6 Important Principles

Stephanie Corrigan
Introduction to User Interface Design: 6 Important Principles
In order to design websites that are both beautiful and strategic, it's important to incorporate fundamental principles of both user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. In this post, we'll explain what makes a good user interface and share six important principles of UI design.

If you're an aspiring web designer, you've likely heard of the term UI before. But how is it different from UX, and what does it have to do with designing websites? To answer these questions, let's start by defining what UI design is and why it's important.

User interface design: An overview

User interface design plays an important role in determining how people interact with a software product. This is because UI design has to do with how different visual elements, such as colors, typography, and imagery, work together to create a seamless user experience.

The overarching goal of every UI design project is to create a product that is both aesthetically appealing and easy to interact with. In other words, the product needs to create a pleasant experience for users. This will not only create a strong first impression, but it also keeps people coming back for more. As you can imagine, user retention is an important metric for any app or website, and UI design plays a huge role in boosting that figure.

However, UI design isn't strictly about visuals. In fact, there are three main types of UI design:

  • Graphical user interfaces (GUI): This is what typically comes to mind when thinking of UI design. It concerns the visual interfaces we see on our computers and handheld devices, such as websites and app screens.
  • Voice-controlled interfaces: These interfaces require sounds, specifically voices, to initiate action. A classic example of this type of interface is Apple's Siri.
  • Gesture-based interfaces: These interfaces are motion-activated and used for applications such as virtual reality games.

In this post, we'll be focusing on graphical user interfaces and how visuals contribute to the overall user experience of a software product.

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UI design vs. user experience (UX) design

The terms UX and UI are often confused with one another. They both go hand-in-hand and there can be a bit of overlap in terms of what their roles are. However, there are a few key distinctions between UX and UI that are important for designers to understand.

The primary difference between UX and UI is that UI is focused on the look and feel of an interface, whereas UX encompasses the entire user experience. UX creates a strategic foundation for a product, and UI makes it beautiful. UX requires research and brainstorming, whereas UI design is more surface-level.

To create an effective software product or website, you need UX and UI to work together. That is, you need UX principles to build the foundation, and then UI design to make it pretty, accessible, and easy to use.

For a 13-minute video lesson on UX and UI best practices, check out Ran Segall's video from the Flux YouTube channel below:

Interested in learning more about UX? Click here to discover the 5 best UX websites to learn from.

User interface and web design

At this point you may be wondering - what does UI (and UX) have to do with web design? Are they one and the same? This is a common source of confusion for aspiring web designers who are trying to figure out which skills they need to acquire in order to build websites for clients.

There are plenty of programs and online courses out there that teach you UI design, UX design, or a combination of the two. But while these skills are immensely valuable for web designers, there are several facets unique to web design that you won't learn in a UI or UX course.

As a UX or UI designer, also known as a product designer, you're tasked with creating interfaces for apps, which could be either mobile or web based or both. Therefore, you'll be working primarily with tech companies. As a web designer, on the other hand, you can work with any type of business because all businesses need websites.

In general, web design offers more creative freedom than product design and it also involves digging deeper than just the user experience. The best web designers are thinking about their clients' branding, positioning, and business goals in order to create high-value websites that produce measurable results, such as increased traffic, community growth, and revenue.

To learn more about the difference between UX/UI design and web design, check out Ran's video below:

6 principles of effective UI design

Now that we've defined what user interface design is and how it's different from UX and web design, let's dive into the six essential principles of UI design.

1. Clarity

In UI design, the term clarity means using recognizable features and elements that are intuitive to interact with. This is especially important for interactive elements such as buttons and navigation menus.

There's a reason why the majority of websites place the main navigation menu at the top of the page and the company logo in the top left corner. It has to do with creating clarity for users, since this is where people first look to find those elements, as evidenced in eye tracking studies.

Example of clear and simple navigation
Example of clear and simple navigation (source)

As creative designers, it can be tempting to think outside the box and place elements in unexpected places in order to create a unique "wow" factor; however, in most cases, doing so is actually to the detriment of the user experience.

Another way to create clarity in UI design is to ensure that clickable elements stand out in some way. For instance, creating a button or underlining text signals to the user that the element is a link.

Click here to read our in-depth guide on website navigation best practices.

2. Consistency

Consistency is essential in design for building trust. Using consistent visual elements through a user interface helps users feel at ease and in control of their actions.

To create a consistent UI design for a website or app, make sure that all repeated elements have the same look and functionality. This means using the same colors, typography, and positioning across the board.

This landing page is a good example of using consistent fonts and colors
This landing page is a good example of using consistent fonts and colors (source)

Imagine landing on a website that uses a serif font for headings on the homepage and a sans serif font on all the other pages. The discrepancy is jarring, even for non-designers, and creates a disjointed experience that feels unprofessional.

Creating consistency through colors and fonts may seem intuitive, but where some designers can trip up is in creating consistent layouts. Fortunately, design tools such as grids make it easier to design layouts across multiple pages that feel consistent. Click here to read more about the importance of layout in graphic design and using grids for the web.

Are you a Webflow web designer? Click here to grab a free copy of Ran Segall's style guide, which will help you create visually consistent websites with Webflow.

3. User Control

As technology grows more and more complicated over the years, the challenge for UI designers is to make sure that the interfaces they design remain simple and easy to use for the average person. In other words, people shouldn't need any training in order to use an app, or especially to navigate a website.

Before Tesla came along, controlling your car via a touch screen was unheard of. Tesla wouldn't sell nearly as many cars if they didn't put in the effort to develop an intuitive UI that anyone can figure out without consulting a heavy instruction manual.

People like to feel like they are in control of their actions. In the context of UI, this means designing an interface that minimizes confusion and empowers users to take specific actions.

Superlist’s website features intuitive interactions
Superlist’s website features intuitive interactions (source)

Here are a few ways to design interfaces that put users in control:

  • Design a simple navigation bar that directs users to the most important pages on the site (see our website navigation best practices).
  • Provide feedback when an action is completed. For example, display a success message or thank you page after a user fills out a form.
  • Use clear labels for buttons, tabs, and other interactive elements. For instance, use a plus sign to indicate a toggle feature.
  • Write custom error messages, such as on a 404 page, that actually provide useful instructions for the user.

4. Comfort

Comfort may sound like a strange principle for design; you're creating websites not cushions. But in fact, comfort goes hand-in-hand with the other principles on this list, such as clarity and ease of use.

There are many different factors that determine how comfortable an interface feels to a user; design, messaging, accessibility, and consistency all come into play.

Here are some tips for designing comfortable user interfaces:

  • Use simple language. If your audience isn't super technical, avoid using technical terms or industry jargon.
  • Design with inclusivity in mind; no one enjoys feeling out of place or excluded.
  • Design for responsiveness. If your website looks great on desktop but shabby on mobile, you're creating a poor experience for a significant percentage of your users.

Example of mobile responsive UI design
Example of mobile responsive UI design (source)

5. Ease of Use

A fundamental role of good UI design is to create a product or website that's easy to use. It's really that simple, although not necessarily easy to accomplish.

If you're well versed in the fundamental visual design principles, you're already well on your way to building ease of use into your designs. This is because the main purpose of design is to communicate a message as quickly, effectively, and beautifully as possible.

If you've ever downloaded an app that was buggy and tricky to navigate, you know firsthand how frustrating a poor user interface design can be. Good UI design helps people get the information they need with as little friction as possible. This means utilizing recognizable elements, clear navigation, and intuitive hierarchy.

6. Accessibility

Last but not least, an important principle of effective UI design is accessibility. As touched on above, accessibility is key for making all users feel comfortable, at ease, and in control when using a software product.

It’s important to make the web accessible for all
It’s important to make the web accessible for all (image source)

Individuals with motor, cognitive, or visual impairments may require a bit of extra support when browsing the web or using an app. As a designer, part of your job is to make sure that your work is as accessible as possible to these individuals. In fact, overlooking accessibility can even result in a lawsuit.

Here are a few tips for designing accessible user interfaces:

  • Make the design keyboard-friendly by ensuring it can be navigated through using the tab key.
  • Add descriptive alt text to images for screen readers
  • Use appropriate color contrast. This contrast checker tests for accessibility compliance.
  • Incorporate visual cues other than just color to indicate interactive elements like links.

If accessibility isn't already part of your web design process, read this post to learn how to design websites with accessibility in mind from the start.

Learn how to design beautiful and user-friendly websites

In this post, we reviewed what user interface design entails, compared it to UX design, and shared six important principles for effective UI design. We also discussed how UI and UX design relate to web design and why it's important to have a good grasp of the former in order to master the latter.

Although UI and UX design are important skills for web designers, there's more to building high-value websites than mastery of these skills. For instance, it's important to have a solid process for bringing websites to life that both look beautiful and provide value to the client. This process is exactly what we teach in our course, Web Design: Becoming a Professional. Click here to learn more about the course and start your journey of becoming a premium, in-demand web designer.

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