Think back to the last time you used a new software. This could be a mobile app, web app, or software platform. Now, try to picture what kind of reaction you had to the user interface design. Were you able to find what you were looking for? If not, did you quickly become frustrated? If these problems persisted, how much longer did you use the software?

Well, if you are like me, unless the design of the user interface met your standards, you likely abandoned that software pretty quickly and you wouldn’t be alone in doing so. For example, in a recent study, 52% of users said that a bad mobile experience made them less likely to engage with a company. Without a robust UI design, that’s over half of your audience walking out the door.

Thankfully, there is an entire field of study dedicated to creating the best possible user experience for your clients. In order to help put your mind at ease about your user interface, we have put together 10 best practices for making sure your users feel confident in using your software. Let’s get started.

user interface design

Why does UI matter?

The first question that often comes up when you begin to talk about user interface design is simply: why does this matter? We’ve all used prominent software with terrible UI and they seem fine, so what’s the big deal?

Well, first of all, those prominent platforms can afford to lose a few users due to poor design. Smaller businesses on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. A well-designed user interface can be the difference between rising in popularity and closing your doors.

With design standards only continuing to improve, taking the time to actually work with a UI designer and come up with a solid user experience will be well worth the investment.

Who creates the user interface design?

The next question you may have when it comes to UI design is: who actually creates the user interface design for a piece of software? Typically, development teams will have a designated UX/UI designer, someone who understand how users will interact with the interface.

However, due to how important UI design is to the end product, each developer should have a base level understanding of this process. If everyone on your team understands what’s at stake and the reason why UI is so vital, you will already have overcome a major hurdle in the design process.

UI Best Practices

With a better understanding of the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of user interface design, now let’s take a look at the ‘how.’ By that, we mean the 10 UI best practices we gathered for this post. These best practices are based on UI design guidelines created by Nielsen and Molich in 1990s, that, despite the almost 30 years since their creation, still hold up.

1. Match interface to real world systems

Part of creating a robust user experience comes from reducing the cognitive load put on users. If you can reduce the amount of extraneous thought that goes into completing a task, and instead provide the needed information at just the right moment, users will be far more satisfied.

One way to do this is by matching your user interface design with real world systems. This allows users to piggy-back off of their existing knowledge, reducing the creative problem solving that may be required with a less well-designed system. In order to make sure users have this ideal experience, be sure to present information in a logical order, allowing the users’ brain to do the rest.

You won’t have to look far to find this sort of UI design when working with software platforms. For instance, the save icon once represented the real-world equivalent of backing up your files to a floppy disk. While this began as a mirror of the real world, it has now been used so frequently that many digital natives don’t even see a floppy disk anymore, only the save icon.

2. Keep system status visible

The next best practice or rule of thumb when developing the UI for your software is to keep the status of the system visible whenever necessary. Not only does this confirm for your users that the program is working, but it gives them visual representation of the steps they are taking and how that will affect the outcome.  

For example, when you are saving a PDF in Adobe’s Acrobat, you can see on the screen a progress bar for how much time is left in the process. Or, in Photoshop, Adobe clearly displays which layer you are working with and, when you make changes to that layer, it alters the interface depending upon what tools you are using. This gives full autonomy to the user and allows them to learn as they use the software.

3. Allow full user freedom & control

Nothing is more frustrating than working with a software solution that doesn’t allow users the freedom or control necessary to complete the tasks they are working on. Even worse, a user interface design that forgoes the ability to make edits or undo errors if necessary. This quickly devolves into a search for the exact right function, greatly hurting the efficiency of the product.

Instead, along with making system statuses clear, try to always allow for users to choose how they want to use your product. You can do your best to teach them along the way, but there should also be a certain level of flexibility for them to work in a way that is familiar to them.

4. Standards and consistency

As we have mentioned previously, reducing the cognitive load necessary to complete tasks is one of the hallmarks of good user interface design. One very simple way to do this for your users is through standard, consistent processes throughout your entire software. Taking this a step further, you can even maintain consistency between different software products if you have multiple offerings.

This is one area, ironically, where Adobe does not represent an example of good user interface design. While they are consistent within one product, between products their design differs and can ultimately be confusing to the user. While one icon means something in Photoshop, it does something else in InDesign. Consistency here would greatly improve the UI of both of these products.

5. Focus on error prevention

So far, each of these UI best practices has focused on the actual experience your design offers. However, there are some areas that will improve the experience for your users not through what’s there, but what isn’t. Mainly, bugs and errors in the software code. While you will have a certain level of testing in your development to avoid this, there will be some errors that still fall through the cracks. The question is: what do you do with them?

Although it may seem tedious, it will be up to you, not your users, to find and eliminate these errors. Remember that statistic we sited earlier about users leaving after a poor user experience? Unless you want to sacrifice users for their ability to find bugs, we recommend putting in place a robust system for reducing errors and bugs in your software.

6. Recognition over recall

Human attention is limited, as we all know, with most of us only able to hold 5 items in our short-term memory at a time. Due to the limits of memory, UI/UX designers should try their best to rely on recognition over recall when it comes to navigating the user interface.

In the same way that it’s easier to take a multiple-choice test than a fill-in-the-blank, users have a far better experience when they can choose from a list instead of having to recall the entire process. Be sure to use visible cues whenever possible to make this process as simple as possible for your users.

7. Maintain flexibility

Another common frustrating that users have with software products is that, while at first, they need to be guided by the interface, with increased use they will get the hang of things. From there, they will be looking for ways to even further improve their efficiency and navigation speed. As a good user interface designer, this is exactly what you should give them.

After a certain amount of time, likely different for every user and software, you should stop offering as many hints and tutorials, and begin educating them in different ways. For instance, keyboard shortcuts, hidden commands, abbreviations, and macro abilities can all be used to speed up the use of the software.

If you can strike the right balance and educate them while improving their performance, you can maintain the flexibility you need to have a successful product.

8. Reduce clutter with minimalist design

Speaking of keeping the users’ attention, another best practice for maintaining a clean, navigable user interface design is to adopt a minimalist approach. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, but it keeps the users’ attention on the most pertinent information, leading to less distractions and greater ease of use.

Ideally, your user interface design would only show the necessary variables or tools needed to complete the task at hand. However, without the ability to read the user’s mind, this likely won’t be possible. Instead, you can simply narrow down the possible tasks they are able to complete at a time, allowing them to focus on each operation as it occurs.  

9. Help users recognize and recover from errors

As we mentioned earlier, errors and bugs are bound to slip through the cracks in your design, no matter how much you try to control them. That being said, how you decide to approach error reporting with your users is completely within your control and, if you do it right, won’t lead to users dropping off when things go wrong.

The best way to handle this is with clear and obvious ways for users to report errors and bugs for further review. Often, these bugs will require technical terminology to solve. However, your users likely won’t understand this industry lingo, so make sure that everything customer-facing has plain language for how to handle and report errors they encounter.

10. Make help easy to find

Finally, if all 9 other best practices fail to guide the user through your software’s user interface, it’s always a good idea to have a help section for them to fall back on. This is the reality of user interface design: you won’t always be able to solve every problem. When this happens, either through a chatbot or another suggestion, make help easy to find.

Although this is an old example, the Clippy tool on Microsoft products is always just a click away for looking up Excel formulas or changing the layout of your Word Doc. This kind of virtual assistant is only getting more advanced with AI technology, so why not harness it to provide the best user experience, even when looking for help.

Final thoughts

As you can see, although user interface design has been around for years and is necessary in today’s digital world, it takes hard work and dedication to actually pull off. Thankfully, with these best practices and a better understanding of UI in general, you should be on the right track to significantly improve the layout of your software and efficacy of the user interface.

Ultimately, this will be an ongoing process that will require consistent maintenance to the software and a lot of trial and error. However, if you are dedicated to making this happen and offering a better experience to your users, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.