“How do I use this?” Those are the last five words that a UI designer wants to hear.
When crafting a digital product like a website, app, or wearable, the key is to ensure it's user-friendly and efficient. This hinges on the principles of User Interface Design (UI), which centers on creating intuitive and visually pleasing interfaces for seamless user interactions.
Effective UI design, whether it‘s emphasizing the login button on a membership site’s homepage or strategically positioning a cart icon on an e-commerce website, is instrumental in guiding users and achieving your product's goals.
In this article, I’ll share my favorite UI design techniques for enhancing user experiences and usability. We’ll cover everything you need to know — including the following topics:
- What is UI design?
- UI Design Principles
- UI Design Tools
- How to Design UI for a Website
- Best UI Design Examples
What is UI design?
UI design is about crafting the visual and interactive elements of an app, encompassing colors, text, buttons, and animations. It's essential for a positive user experience but distinct from UX design, which addresses broader product development aspects. UI design involves strategic choices in layout, like logo placement and button behavior, to ensure visual coherence and an engaging interface.
UI Design Principles
While every application will require a unique interface, there are a few fundamental principles that should guide any project. You’ll find dozens online and in textbooks, but there is a handful that are most well-known and regarded. These include the 10 Usability Heuristics for UI Design by Jakob Nielsen, The Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design by Ben Shneiderman, and Principles of Interaction Design by Bruce Tognazzini. Most of these principles overlap, so we’ll condense and summarize them below.
1. Be consistent
Consistency in colors, typography, animations, and language usage is vital for a cohesive interface, impacting both the user experience and brand identity.
For instance, using different labels like “Submit” and “Send” on forms can confuse users. To ensure internal consistency, it's best to standardize button copy, using either “Submit” or “Send.” This is one facet of the consistency principle.
External consistency, the other facet, involves following established conventions from other products to avoid burdening users with new patterns. For instance, most websites use “Home” for their homepage navigation. Imagine if it said “House” instead. Consistently adhering to established conventions, such as “Home,” reduces cognitive load and enhances the user experience.
2. Make users feel in control
Creating an interface that empowers users to feel in command encourages them to explore and learn the application further. This involves allowing room for mistakes and the ability to reverse actions. Consequently, it's essential to add clear close buttons on popups, straightforward options for revisiting or editing cart information on checkout pages, and providing undo and redo functionalities in text editors, among other features.
For instance, consider this example from LoveOhLou, where a lightbox popup presents users with the clear choices of entering their email address or clicking the close button. This approach prioritizes user control and enhances their overall experience.
3. Provide feedback
You can boost user confidence by providing feedback as they interact with the interface. This can begin with a loading animation, indicating successful page access. There are various ways to keep users informed.
Consider an order confirmation message on an e-commerce site, which not only confirms but also reassures users. Without such feedback, uncertainty may lead to duplicate orders or early exits.
Similarly, informing users about their progress towards free shipping before checkout, as done by The Wrap Life, manages expectations and encourages additional spending.
4. Enable users to resolve errors
A user interface should not just allow errors but also enable users to correct them. This is where error messages come into play. An error message with clear language and visuals identifies the issue and suggests a solution, aiding users in understanding, resolving, and avoiding the same mistake.
Take the “incorrect password” message on a login page as an example. It typically offers two solutions: re-entering the password or resetting it.
On Package Free Shop, an error message notifies users of an incorrect email address or password and provides options to keep trying different combinations or initiate a password reset.
5. Prevent errors
Empowering users with control while ensuring effective navigation and task completion requires not only error-handling mechanisms but also error prevention measures. These measures include offering undo options, mandating steps to verify personal or payment information, issuing warnings, and applying constraints to prevent error-prone actions.
For instance, when setting a password, certain requirements like length, character combinations, special characters, and uniqueness must be met before a password can be created. This prevents duplicate passwords and ensures compatibility with processing requirements, enhancing security.
Another example of error prevention is in form completion. If a required field is left blank, users cannot submit the form; instead, they receive an error message, prompting them to review and correct the omission.
6. Don’t rely on users to remember information
Regardless of where users are within the interface, whether at the bottom of the homepage or ready to check out, it‘s crucial to provide all necessary information for their next steps. Users shouldn’t have to recall details from other parts of your site or perform cumbersome actions like scrolling up or using the back button.
For example, imagine offering a discount prominently displayed on your homepage but nowhere else. Users on product pages may be uncertain about the discount, and those on the checkout page might need to return to the homepage, potentially leading to cart abandonment or site exit.
To prevent this, ensure information is consistently visible and accessible across the entire user interface. For instance, place a discount banner on every page, allowing users to easily find it.
COIX, a user-focused footwear store, effectively implements this by showcasing the discount with a hero image on the homepage, using icons to indicate the discount on product archive pages, and clearly displaying reduced prices on individual product pages. This design approach eliminates the need for users to remember or calculate discount details, enhancing their experience.
7. Keep it simple
Keeping the user interface simple doesn’t mean make it flat and avoid shadows, effects, or other decorative elements. It just means use a minimalist approach when designing the interface. Think: what elements must I include to enable users to complete their goals. Anything else will compete for the user’s attention and is likely better left out.
8. Design for different types of users
Let’s say you’re designing an interface for a content management system. Some users might have a lot of experience with other CMS platforms, while others might have never used one before. That’s why it’s important to design with both experts and beginners in mind.
You can achieve this by offering demonstrations or tooltip recommendations for newcomers, as well as shortcuts and other speed-enhancing features for experienced users. Importantly, all of these functionalities should include options for users to skip or exit at their discretion. This way, users who require guidance can utilize the demos and suggestions, while those with greater expertise can seamlessly navigate the platform and leverage shortcuts.
You can find a good illustration of this in the WordPress admin dashboard. Novice users can access helpful information about dashboard navigation, layout, and content, along with links to support threads or documentation, by clicking the Help tab. Meanwhile, advanced users can choose to minimize or disregard this tab entirely.
How to Design UI for a Website
1. Understand your user’s pain points
Understanding what bothers your users is a key first step in designing websites or apps. It goes beyond just knowing their age or where they live; those details aren‘t the most important. The main goal is to really get what your users truly want, even things they might not realize themselves. You need to know their expectations and the problems they face when using your website or app. Only then can you create a design that’s easy to use and works well.
Empathy, rather than relying solely on data and analytics, is the key. Techniques such as interviews, online surveys, and user testing sessions represent just a few methods to gain profound insights into the individuals who will engage with your website. These insights will profoundly influence every facet of the UI design process.
2. Write user stories
After you’ve performed your interviews, surveys, and user testing, then you’ll have lots of rich information about your users. One way to use and organize this information is to create user stories.
According to UI/UX architect Tom Brinton in an article on UXBooth, user stories describe a basic goal that the user wants to accomplish using the application. They’re usually only one sentence and follow this format: “As a user, I want to … [some goal].”
Think of some goals that a user on a meal delivery service kit might want to accomplish. Here are some examples using the user story format:
- “As a user, I want to create a new account.”
- “As a user, I want to log in.”
- “As a user, I want to add my payment information.”
- “As a user, I want to change my address.”
- “As a user, I want to change how often I receive a delivery.”
- “As a user, I want to change the day I get my deliveries.”
You’d need to brainstorm a lot more user stories to identify all the goals of users for the meal delivery service kit. While this step might take a significant amount of time, it will be worth the effort. Identifying user stories first will ensure that the user’s needs and behaviors dictate the design and functionality of the application — not the other way around.
3. Make an interface inventory
Now that you have a clear idea of what the user wants and needs, you can create an inventory of the UI elements and features required for the user to accomplish their goals. Web designer Brad Frost refers to this as “the interface inventory.” You’ll need typography, images, media, tables, forms, buttons, a navigation system, and any other odds and ends that make up an interface.
If you and your team have already designed some of these components or used them in other marketing collateral, then Frost recommends taking screenshots of them and compiling and categorizing them in a PowerPoint. You’ll be able to identify any inconsistencies at this stage — maybe you designed a button with rounded edges, and another team member designed it with square edges — and begin identifying patterns. This will be great for streamlining the UI design process.
4. Identify design patterns
As you finalize your interface inventory, you can identify common design patterns. Design patterns are general solutions to recurring problems in software design. They’re not code, but rather a template or description for solving a problem that can be applied to different situations.
For example, say the problem is that a website has many sections, but limited space for a navigation menu. In that case, a vertical dropdown menu could be a solution. Identifying these patterns will help maintain consistency and efficiency in the UI design process.
5. Create a prototype
A prototype is a partially operational layout that provides a detailed preview of the appearance and functionality of the actual application's interface. While most prototypes may not encompass the full functionality of the app, they effectively mimic its operations, enabling clients and other stakeholders to interact with the interface.
Through prototypes, UI designers and stakeholders can showcase and deliberate on how various elements will function, test their concepts, and introduce modifications. Typically, at this stage, UI designers hand over their designs to developers for implementation.
Now that we‘ve covered the phases of the UI design process and highlighted the significance of prototyping, let’s explore some tools that can assist you in crafting responsive and interactive prototypes.
UI Design Tools
Justinmind is a free tool for designing responsive and fully interactive prototypes. You can design the style, size, and layout of UI elements to fit the look and feel of different screens, and use a full range of interactions, animations, and transitions to design the interactivity of your interface.
Used by over one million people, Sketch is a design platform that enables users to create prototypes while collaborating with a team to bring their ideas to life.
As a vector-based tool, Sketch allows you to easily resize a drawing, prototype, or wireframe without losing quality. To use Sketch, you can make a one-time payment or pay a monthly subscription.
Marvel is a flexible tool for creating wireframes, mockups, and prototypes for any device. You can build mockups within the tool, upload your images, or sync designs from Sketch.
With Marvel, you’ll get millions of assets, stock photos, and icons to add to your designs. At any point, you can provide your team or other stakeholders with visibility into your project and leave comments or annotations on others’ designs. There’s a free plan as well as two premium plans and an enterprise plan.
Mockitt Design is a rapid prototyping tool with a library of built-in UI assets and templates
Wondershare Mockitt Design is a rapid prototyping tool with a library of built-in UI assets and templates. You can drag and drop UI components onto the page, create and reuse your own libraries, and work on the same page as teammates to collaborate in real time. There’s a free version in addition to two premium subscription plans.
Invision Studio is one of the most popular free prototyping tools among UI designers. Like Sketch, Invision Studio is a vector-based tool. That means you can quickly and easily design, adjust, and scale your high-fidelity, interactive prototypes to fit any screen automatically.
You can share your designs using Invision Studio’s Boards features, and clients and teammates can comment directly on your designs.
Figma offers powerful design features for UI designers. You can create animated prototypes in less time, adapt them to different screen sizes using the constraints feature, and reuse elements across your projects using the components feature. You can also co-edit the same project to ensure you can offer and respond to feedback as you design.
7. Adobe XD
Adobe XD is an all-in-one tool used by UI and UX designers. You can wireframe, animate, prototype, collaborate, and more. Since it’s vector-based like Sketch and Invision Studio, Adobe XD enables you to create high-fidelity designs for any screen. There’s a free plan as well as paid plans for individuals and businesses.
Best UI Design Examples
You know the process and tools you need to design a user interface. Now let’s check out some examples from real websites and apps that might inspire you to create your next project.
1. Wine + Peace
Wine + Peace is an innovative wine company that strives to connect consumers to the most exciting wines and producers in America. While it ships wines from all over the country, Wine + Peace is limited by direct wine shipment laws in some states. Rather than rely on consumers to navigate to its FAQ page, Wine + Peace features a banner on every page where users can input their zip code to check if the company is able to ship to their areas.
This is an excellent way to make users feel in control, provide them with important information, and prevent them from placing an order they can’t fulfill, without relying on them to recall or find the information themselves.
2. Naba Zabih
Naba Zabih, a wedding and elopement photographer, travels globally to capture wedding moments. Guided by the motto “I believe in magic,” her website radiates romance and dreaminess with an earthy color scheme and consistent script typefaces.
Much like her storytelling in photographs, Zabih's website weaves a compelling narrative through abundant images, seamless transitions, elegant animations, and generous white space. The result is an immersive scrolling experience akin to flipping through a curated photo album. This portfolio website exemplifies a user interface that emphasizes both consistency and simplicity.
Delassus Group, a Moroccan producer specializing in snacking tomatoes, citrus, grapes, avocados, and flowers, features a 60-second video for first-time website visitors. This video on their website offers an informative overview of the company's history, product range, and commitment to social responsibility.
For users unfamiliar with the company or visiting for the first time, the option to view the full video, with or without sound, is available. In contrast, returning users or those already acquainted with the company can easily skip the video and swiftly access the homepage.
This user-friendly interface not only empowers users to customize their experience but also caters to a diverse audience.
4. Hi, skin
Hi, skin specializes in personalized skincare, tailoring facials and face workouts to each individual's unique complexion. Its website showcases models in skincare routines, emphasizing customer satisfaction and skin health.
You’ll find user-friendly pathways to explore the team, services, and locations. With a balanced blend of media, white space, and concise text, the design employs attention-grabbing bursts of color, like the vibrant orange appointment button, to engage users.
HalloBasis is the brainchild of design duo Felix Vorbeck and Johannes Winkler, specializing in visual communication. Their website serves as a portfolio of their branding, graphic design, and web design expertise.
Spain Collection, a premium travel experience website for Spain and Portugal, encourages user autonomy under its motto “Craft Your Unique Adventure!”
On the homepage, users can watch videos related to the company, its CEO, and team members or scroll past them. You can also choose from collections in a slider or from the navigation header. Selecting a collection leads to a page where users can pick an experience or destination from multiple options.
The image above isn‘t the app you’ll download from the app store; it's a UI design crafted by the Tubik team. This UI caters to two types of users: those who wish to explore and those who have a specific order in mind.
Exploratory users can utilize filter options and view photos along with key details, including pricing, for each menu item. Clicking on a specific product provides access to the “Ingredients” tab for customization. Users who know precisely what they want to benefit from color accents highlighting prices and quick-action buttons like “Add to Cart” for efficient scanning and swift checkout.
Dribbble, a platform designed for creative professionals to exhibit their work, ensures a consistent user experience, even on its 404 error page.
Instead of encountering a dead end, lost visitors are redirected to a page displaying popular designs based on a specific color. If this doesn't pique their interest, they can use a slider to explore designs in different colors or employ the search bar to locate specific designs or designers. Additionally, they have the option to click the logo in the top left to return to the homepage or select “Contact us” in the top right to access the help center.
This approach empowers users to maintain control over the interface, even when they encounter errors or broken links.
The LinkedIn app boasts a sleek user interface in line with its branding, featuring the familiar typeface, blue and gray color scheme, and website icons.
One standout feature is its user onboarding process. As users begin creating their accounts, they‘re led through several stages. They’re prompted to input personal information, verify their email, connect with LinkedIn groups and thought leaders, and receive suggestions to expand their professional network. Each screen provides a concise explanation of the task, and users have the option to skip certain steps for later completion.
The Importance of UI Design
Every day, we interact with user interfaces — whether it’s using a microwave, logging into an app, or making a purchase on an ecommerce site.
Successful UI design can make the difference between an excellent user experience and a poor one. Understanding and applying UI design principles as well as the guidelines of website design — simplicity, navigability, consistency, and user-centricity, among others — and using the right tools can help you create the best interface for your product.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in January 2021 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.