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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Don Norman advocates systems thinking in education

In a recent 3 minute video interview with the Illinois Foundry, Don Norman advocated a systems thinking approach to design engineering education. Rather than educating students in narrow, deep specialisms, Don suggests that Universities also need to educate students with a broad knowledge of social sciences. Educating systems thinkers will, he feels, ensure user needs are considered and help solve social problems.

We need people whose understanding goes beyond science and engineering to encompass history, literature, and the arts. We need people who understand both technology and people.  The emphasis on specialized knowledge is bad for society.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Design principles

I’m doing some research into design principles for a project at work, with some colleagues. Design principles help focus and guide the design process to align product development with organisational objectives, brand values and user needs. Design principles provide strategic direction for design work, particularly for larger organisations with a number of products or services. But they can also work for start-ups and smaller organisations, who want to ensure they don’t stray from a clear vision that makes their product or service unique.

Design principles can also be thought of as best practise heuristics. I’m not going to write at length about how design principles can be used, as I’ve found some really useful resources elsewhere. For example Whitney Hess’s presentation, and posts by Jax WechslerLuke Wroblewski and Sarah Nelson.

There have been a couple of other notable posts recently which seem very timely given our design principles project. The first was by the UK Government Digital Service who have published a set of 10 design principles for developing Government digital services. It’s inspiring to see that GDS are using principles to focus their design projects. I particularly like the way their principles are written: clear, concise and no-nonsense. Juksie’s post about the GDS design principles is well worth a read.

The second post which came to my attention was from Abbey Covert, who has developed some IA heuristics. Abbey’s approach to developing the principles was led by reviewing the existing literature on IA best practise principles and heuristics, and synthesising her findings into a new set of heuristics.

One of our starting points has been to review existing design and usability principles, developed by UX researchers and other well known organisations. To help understand which principles are referenced most frequently, I collected principles from various sources (listed below*), added them to a spreadsheet, categorised them and visualised them as a word cloud:

A word cloud of frequently used design principles

I had to make some subjective decisions about how to categorise the principles, but it was fairly clear which are the most popular ones e.g. ‘consistent’, ‘simple’, ‘user control’, ‘inclusive’, ‘feedback’, ‘aesthetic design’. All these principles were included in Norman’s design principles and Neilsen’s heuristics which indicates that many organisations may have referenced those sources. It isn’t surprising that these existing principles have propagated, because they are are borne out by best practise and research.

‘User centred’ was mentioned less frequently in the design principles I analysed, perhaps because it seems too obvious. Newman and Lamming (1995) highlighted the importance of including even the most obvious principles:

The need to design with a view to supporting human activity is so basic it often gets left out of people’s general principles or ‘golden rules’. So it needs to be stated here at the outset:

  • Design with a view to supporting the user’s task or process.

A second principle relates to the need to address the concerns of the user. If we know who this user is and have some familiarity with his or her special needs, we can orient our design strategy accordingly. But we often lack this understanding. A fundamental guideline to follow is Hansen’s ‘user engineering principle’ (1971):

  • Know the user.

By a combination of studying the user’s activities and learning about their skills, knowledge, roles and responsibilities, we can design according to these two principles.

I was also surprised that references to emotional responses such as the principle ‘delightful’ were relatively under-used. Especially in a time when there seems to be a proliferation of books, talks and conference workshops covering topics such as designing products with personality, or designing for emotional engagement and delight.

Design principles can be developed at different levels. They can be universal, covering the entire design output of an organisation. Or they can be tailored for specific products or projects. We are aiming to develop some universal design principles in the first instance.

As we move to the next stage of developing our design principles I’m interested to know how well design principles work elsewhere. Does your organisation use design principles? Are you willing to share them? How have they worked for you? Do your products adhere to the principles? What happens if a design principle is ignored? Is there any governance to ensure design principles are followed? Please leave a comment if you have any insights to share!

* The principles we have referenced so far include:

Apple iOS
Bruce Tognazzini
Government Digital Service
Morville, Peter
Nielsen, Jakob
Norman, Don
Schneiderman, Ben
The Understanding Group’s Heuristic IA Principles




ByMichele Ide-Smith

The invisible website

The Invisible Computer by Don NormanRecently someone asked me what websites I like from a user experience design perspective. I couldn’t think. My mind went blank! Which struck me as weird, given that I use websites all the time and I’ve worked in web design and development for around 15 years. Surely some websites should stand out as being well designed, as being inspirational for having a great user experience?

Reflecting on why nothing stood out in my mind when I was put on the spot, I remembered a famous book by Don Norman. In ‘The Invisible Computer‘ Norman argues that good technology design should be invisible to the user:

The current infrastructure for personal computers has outlived its usefulness. Although it was well designed for the problems and technology of the 1980s, it no longer works when faced with the problems and technologies of the 21st century. Moreover, the technology of the personal computer gets ever more complex every year. There is no way out, for it is caught in the tyranny of its own success, of its own marketing, and its business model that demands ever more features every year, thereby ever more complexity.

The only way out is through a disruptive technology, through a break with tradition to a technology that becomes invisible, that starts off focusing upon simplicity, joy of ownership, joy of use: a human-centered development philosophy.

So rather than thinking about websites and web applications I admire for good design or inspiration, I reflected on five of the sites and applications I enjoy using and thought about what makes them a pleasure to use. Just as Norman proposed in ‘The Invisible Computer’, the fact that some websites are simple, and a joy to use, indicates they are well designed and a user centred design process is key to the success of the design.

Google Maps

Google Maps

I once thought “what’s not to like?” about Google Maps. It has some great features and a very clear interface. Street view is particularly cool and I can get lost for ages looking at random pictures. Using the ‘directions’ functionality is easy and flexible, suggesting the quickest route but allowing you to drag routes around on the map and choose other options or add additional places en-route. It’s easy to print add edit your maps. I also enjoy creating my own maps and using the API, Google Maps also integrates well with open source platforms such as WordPress. These days I tend to find myself using Bing Maps quite a bit, for the Ordnance Survey Maps and Birds Eye Views which are sadly not included in Google Maps.



In terms of house hunting Rightmove stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ok it has some quirks, but the home page is nice and clear, the search works well and the details and photos are laid out clearly. In terms of personalisation, I love the draw-a-search feature which combined with alerts and saved searches work brilliantly and makes house hunting a breeze. The mobile version of the site also works very well.

John Lewis

John Lewis

The John Lewis website is a stalwart of e-commerce sites. Faceted search that’s been configured to work well. Nice clean design. Good information. A bit like a visit to a physical store.

The Guardian

Guardian Data Store

I’ve always liked the current Guardian website. Especially the fonts. And the colours. I don’t know why, but I do. I also like the mouseovers on images, the ‘in pictures’ feature and the way that live news has been developed. The Guardian satellite sites have a good visual tie-in with the main site, so you never feel far away from the ‘mother brand’. I particularly the Guardian data store and some of the excellent data visualisations.

User Voice

User Voice

UserVoice is an ingenious social tool which has a variety of uses. Originally designed to enable a website or software user community to suggest changes or new features and vote for them, the tool has adapted well to being used for civic engagement or to generate ideas or concepts when collaborating with other people on projects.

So in summary, I found there are websites and web applications I admire from a user experience perspective, because as a user I enjoy using and interacting with them. They minimise frustration and maximise the experience of finding information, carrying out particular tasks or sharing and communicating with other people. Thanks to Don for that bit of much needed inspiration.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Search or browse?

This evening I checked out the new Lancashire County Council website which has adopted a ‘Google’ style home page – just a search box and little other navigation. Unless of course you go to the ‘classic view’, which is a link on the relatively discreet navigation bar at the top (highlighted with blue elipse below).

Lancashire County Council - new home page

Although it’s a bold move and I applaud any Council willing to step away from the category style navigation enforced by the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL) for many years, I am really not sure this is a good decision. I think Lancashire could find that a significant number of their users find the site much harder to use. I may well be wrong, but  it will be very interesting to find out what user testing results they get and what their website analytics show. But I have a hunch based on my experience of moderating user tests and what I’ve learnt about how different users behave.

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