Interface Design Mantras

I had my first speaking experience at Refresh Edinburgh in February, discussing my interface design ‘mantras’. To save you listening to me warble on for 25 minutes, below is a quick write-up covering my main points.

Interface = Brand

In ‘The Interface of a Cheeseburger’, Oliver Reichenstein observes that “Shaping interfaces is shaping the character of things. The brand is what transports the character of things.” It’s possible for the gut feeling we have for a product, service or organisation—Marty Neumeier’s definition of brand—to be defined by the interface. Apple, Dyson and Lego are examples of such brands.

Establish a vocabulary

Interfacing with something is a lot like having a conversation. Just as people learn to articulate themselves, so must an interface. Like social etiquette, the language of an interface should be designed appropriate to situation and purpose. Crafting a vocabulary helps mould the senses of an interface.

Context is king

Is the purpose of the interface a serious one? Utilitarian in nature? Perhaps it’s a tool, or simply used for fun? Successful design decisions are made in the context of usage, content and the business. Complicated web apps demand design decisions that not only serve the user, but that scale well and are performant too.

Make it better

Every time you touch your app is a chance to make it better. “Better” does not equate to more features. Seek out weak points, note down issues and set time aside from your schedule to improve them. Consistency of UX, visual improvements, code dryness, whatever. If you’re developing new features without an eye on the larger experience, you can bet you’re making things a whole lot worse in the long term.

Facilitate good habits

Much like a driving instructor and pupil, it’s a designer’s job to facilitate good habits in the user. Prepare them mentally for the task at hand. Set the tone. Use handholding and signposting techniques to ease the introduction to, and completion of, specific activities.

Make it simple, but no simpler

I like to define simplicity of an interface as: allowing the user to concentrate on the task at hand without realising it.  While the quest for simplicity is virtuous, enforced simplicity can be dangerous. Instead, consistency of approach is paramount. It buys you attention, and while it’s important to know how not make the user think, it’s arguably more important to know how and when to make them think.

Small details make a big difference

A/B tests performed on changes to button text, form element alignments and small passages of microcopy have proven that small changes can make a huge difference to a bottom line. Likewise, crafting elements of the user experience that resonate with us as  human beings creates a bond that draws us back. Taking the time to sweat the details is always rewarded.

Design is for humans

Machines are logical and rational, but humans are emotional and irrational. Try to see design as less about solving problems and more about creating opportunities. Theory can be learned, just as execution can be learned. Our real value as designers is our instinct to know how and when to marry them appropriate to the situation.

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Update: This article has been translated to Serbo-Croatian by Jovana Milutinovich from