Six basic rules for creating a good user experience

All web and software developers and designers strive to create a user experience that makes the task, and work life easier and more enjoyable and converts non-believers into devotees. There are many theories and opinions about what constitutes good user design. However, most of them are rooted in Jakob Nielsen's more than thirty-year-old recommendation. Here we go through some of the most important factors in creating a good user experience, summarized in six basic rules.

If you google UX, UI, and interaction design, you'll get tons of tips and opinions about what constitutes a good interface and what lays the foundation for an excellent user experience. You'll find lists of anywhere from three to 30 rules that designers, teachers, and developers think you should follow. However, most of this advice is based on a more than thirty-year-old recommendation developed by interaction consultants Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich, which is referred to as Nielsen's heuristics.

If you’re wondering about the differences between UX (User Experience Design) and UI (User Interface Design), UX focuses on the user benefit, and UI on the design of the interface and the visuals. For example, a UI designer thinks about whether users find an intranet attractive, while a UX designer looks at how quickly and easily users can solve their work tasks. UI can also be considered a sub-component of UX as it takes a holistic approach to the user experience. The advice we give below includes both approaches to system development and user design.

Nielsen's criteria for good user design includes 10 rules. All of these are highly relevant even today, but they focus more on interaction design than on user benefit and several rules can be merged together.

Based on Nielsen's criteria and with a focus on user benefit, a roughly simplified list of the basic rules for good user interaction and interface design can look like this:

    1. Put the user first. Addressing the users first in the development of an application, an intranet or the entire digital workplace should be second nature to any development team. Despite this, many start at the other end: technology. Which apps and what platform and hardware should we upgrade to?

      Selecting and designing technical solutions before asking users about their needs, expectations, and everyday problems can be counterproductive and expensive. Involve them from the very start and spend lots of time analyzing existing and future needs, processes, and habits. Create personas for all types of users and map these to the technical solution. Let actual users test the solution successively throughout the design and development process.

      We recommend an agile development methodology, where each step forward is tested against the target groups and tuned before the next step is taken. It’s faster and more cost-efficient than building the entire solution, rolling it out in its entirety, and then fixing errors and shortcomings afterward.

    2. Optimize usability. Usability can be broken down into two distinct qualities: user benefit and user experience. User benefit defines the extent to which the user can fulfill the purpose of using the system. User experience is about the (dis)satisfaction experienced in using the system/site in terms of its being easy both to use and to understand. Put simply, high usability is achieved through user-oriented functions, interfaces, and content. In practice, this means that:

      a. The content must be relevant, i.e. that information, news, documents, and media are interesting or useful for the user. With targeting and role-based functions, for example, the content can be directed to different user categories. Read more >>

      b. Functions and tools must be adapted to the user so that the person can quickly find information and achieve his or her goals and/or perform his or her tasks. In addition, the user must have adequate authorization rights and access links to all required tools, functions, and data sources.

      c. The interface must be as intuitive as possible so that users do not have to be educated first or have to search for information on how to operate the system/site and its functions. What is perceived as intuitive will vary from one person or country to another, with the age of the user also being an important factor. A simple rule of thumb is to apply modern interface standards. Most users will then instantly and instinctively know how to use different buttons, icons, menus, etc. For instance, virtually every user in the world is today familiar with the hamburger menu imagef2jh.png in apps and responsive websites and knows how it works.

    3. Be consistent and adhere to standards. It should be easy for the user to recognize and understand symbols, objects, situations, and choices. He or she should not have to search and try to remember, but instead intuitively understand and act through recognition. To achieve this, apply the standards that exist, be consistent and use the same language throughout the solution, and use the most common interfaces and symbols. Read point 2c above.

    4. Give the user full control and optimal support. It must be easy for the user to cancel, undo, and/or restore a command or an action. Good user design is largely about giving users the freedom and flexibility to control the system and different situations themselves. When a user cannot or does not understand how to abort or retrace the steps in, for example, a multi-step process, frustration arises and not seldom a reluctance to continue using the solution. If instead there are clear symbols and instructions on how to leave or undo the latest event(s), the user experience is enhanced. For example, use dialog boxes that prompt the user to confirm important decisions before making a major change, and offer as many undo options as possible.

      In this context, it’s also extremely important to think about error handling. To minimize the risk of misunderstandings, the user must be informed both once and twice about the consequence of a certain command. For example, when a file is to be deleted or when a major comprehensive change to a database is to be made. Then the user should be informed about and forced to confirm the action at least a couple of times. The solution should also contain plenty of support information, FAQs, and self-help instructions.

      The more time you invest in developing knowledge bases, wikis, guides, videos, etc. that help users solve problems themselves, the fewer support resources are needed. Read more in the blog post A digital workplace no one wants to leave.

    5. Visual hierarchy and minimalism. By working with graphical elements, menus, colors, images, and text formatting in a hierarchical order, you help the user navigate, filter, and find what is relevant. It saves the user time and makes the solution easier to explore and use. You should also try to keep the amount of information and objects displayed on each page and dialog box to a minimum. This is to facilitate easier and faster skimming and to prevent the user from being led astray.

    6. Ensure high accessibility. Accessibility refers to a system’s/site’s response time and speed of use, mobile responsiveness, operational reliability, redundancy, and disability support functions for users with visual impairment, color blindness, or other disabilities. Since January 2019 it’s mandatory for the Swedish public sector to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standard in any web, app, or intranet development. Many other organizations and companies also follow WCAG when upgrading their sites’ accessibility.

      Since mobile devices increasingly constitute the main communication and work tool today, it’s more or less a hygiene factor to adapt the digital workplace to mobile. A good mobile experience is also a prerequisite for frontline employees to be able to search for information and use the digital workplace's resources effectively. Therefore, ensure that the digital workplace and intranet are well adapted for mobile devices using responsive design and/or a mobile app. For example, all intranets built on the Omnia platform are automatically responsive. Organizations that want to enhance the mobile experience and gain better control over it also use the Omnia app.

      Integrating different applications, for example, Teams with the intranet also increases accessibility and simplifies use. Read more about this in the blog post Teams and the intranet in perfect harmony.

Learn more

Learn more about how to create a successful, popular, and efficient digital workplace by reading our blog series Building a successful digital workplace or downloading our whitepaper Driving Employee Engagement with a Modern Intranet. You can also participate in our webinar How to build a modern digital workplace.