Let’s talk about UX Rules…

Road signs one says Rule and the other says Exception

by Frank Spillers
CEO/CXO @ Experience Dynamics

No rules?

I recently had a discussion with a colleague (teaching design at a prestigious Art School) about rules in UX Design. I asked what rules UX designers could follow for improving UX, eg: consistency, memorability, ease of use, etc. The response was, “there are no rules” essentially don’t go looking for rules — stop being so rigid — design decisions are open to interpretation. I felt a little uneasy with this discussion because I was being painted as the rule-following UX person, what I used to call the ‘Usability Gestapo’. In fact, I am very clear about the role of rules. Let me explain what I believe to be the role of UX rules.

What is the purpose of rules in UX Design?

  1. Rules are there to help designers avoid mistakes and ‘known unknowns’. Rules provide guidelines in UX that codify an understanding of patterns of human behavior (yes, users have problems with hamburger menus on mobile). See an example of a better way to do hamburger menus for mobile below.
mobile app with articles and a blue circular menu lower left with lines through it- a more visible menu
mobile app with articles and a blue circular menu lower left with lines through it- a more visible menu
Example: Making a hamburger menu pop out on mobile can help users find menu options.

2. Rules act as guidelines in UX, not directives. Industry-standard UI Style Guides tend to document known best practices. Knowing that users struggle with fonts, colors, layouts, menus, etc. can be helpful to help you avoid classic mistakes. But they should not dictate unless it’s a lost cause and you’re being stupid trying eg. Horizontal scrolling on the Web is tricky. Or, making a call to action difficult to see or reach is well, not recommended. This becomes particularly important with Accessibility (see example below).

Personalize cookies UI showing a green toggle with a checkmark to reinforce selected state.
Personalize cookies UI showing a green toggle with a checkmark to reinforce selected state.
Example: To fend off yellow/green perceived as mustard in colorblindness, UX designers must add a symbol with the offending color to reinforce its meaning — without just the use of color.

3. Rules in UX require you to contextually interpret if they apply or can be hacked. I have never been comfortable with blindly following rules in UX. Not because I don’t respect what’s known and documented, but sometimes usability rules can be bent. Certain designs work in certain contexts and not in others. Certain innovations like following a Save with Delete link after pressing “Delete” with “Are you sure you want to delete? Delete / Cancel” (in-page, dynamically )is not standard, but Google (and others) for example, have shown you can do that with a careful novel interface. Pie menus are another good example, they were never used on the Web before being adopted in smartphones. At Experience Dynamics as early as 2008, we used them in a financial services application. Having conducted field research we knew what state of mind users were in and what they needed, so we threw it into the prototype and tested it with users. And they performed surprisingly well in user testing.

Pie menu- a novel interface, previously used in tablet experiences but rarely in a web application.

4. Rules ought to be evaluated for validity. The most important part of breaking rules, as well as following them is to get validation from users. UX relies on testing with users to make sure an interface actually works as expected. It ought to be called “User Expectation Testing”. This is imperative for any new innovative or novel UI or interaction, especially for Accessibility Testing.

5. Break them if you know them. Experienced UX design teams will be able to break, bend or hack UX rules if they deeply understand user contexts, behavior, and motivation. Knowing contextual triggers (what users need to get information, make a decision, move to the next step) can give you ideas on how to create a better interface. Gandhi said it best:

Mahatma Gandhi photo- bald Indian man in a wrap cloth with penny-rim glasses
Mahatma Gandhi photo- bald Indian man in a wrap cloth with penny-rim glasses

So why do UX teams follow rules? Because humans do things consistently: Most human behavior is predictable and doesn’t vary from design to design. You can learn a lot from rules as they codify mistakes made and observed by teams before you. Further, in UX Design, we are not designing Art in the Picasso sense where your subjective experience interprets it differently. That’s not an anti-creativity statement, it’s the reality of moving a user through an informational space without making them think or be interrupted by your poor design decision.

A Word about violating the rules

I mentioned Accessibility above. It provides a nice lens to examine rule-breaking since this seems to be one area where the default in Web Design and UX, sadly, is to break accessibility rules.

Let’s look at different types of rules briefly and discuss their breakability:

  • Design Guideline: A generally accepted theory or idea about how to approach a design issue. eg. Visual Hierarchy is a Graphic Design concept that also supports usability which says to prioritize tasks and your call to action.

Breakable? Maybe, depends. See #3 above. I don’t personally start in a ‘break it’ mode but I also don’t stop at a guideline — instead I try to determine if it’s relevant, useful and how it can be applied and elevated to solve the problem. Again, it’s a lot easier if you do field research to thoroughly understand the problem space before diving into the solution space.

  • Usability Heuristic: A set of rules or ‘rules of thumb’ for violating usability issues. Originally developed by usability pioneers Nielsen/Molich and refined again by Nielsen, Gerhardt-Powals, and others — the heuristics describe known user/ usability requirements.

Breakable? Not usually recommended. However, you can inadvertently break these by misinterpreting or misapplying them (they come from and therefore require a little understanding of Cognitive Science). Heuristic evaluations as a rule prioritize the ‘heuristic violation’, so one way you can judge how severe an issue is by prioritizing — and not treating all issues with high drama.

  • Industry Standard. An industry-standard comes from an independent, recognized body that governs the standard. ISO for Human-Centered Design and WCAG (W3.org) come to mind.

Breakable? Like the UN, does anyone pay attention to ISO? In the EU and the Mid-East, they seem to pay more attention to it. Not as much in the US. Standards organizations, unfortunately, have very weak governance, especially in corporate environments. Note: W3 is generally considered the authority for guidelines on Accessibility that have become an international standard.

  • Legal requirements. A law issued by a court within a country or governing region (EU). Laws dictate rules of engagement followed by governments, corporations, and others.

Breakable? At your own risk. Accessibility lawsuits in the US tripled in 2018 and continued rising in 2020. This might be the time to re-evaluate breaking legal precedents... Breaking the law can lead to large payouts, changing code and platforms under pressures you are not fully controlling — as well as bad public relations.

In summary, don’t see rules as a damper on creativity. Like understanding user limitations or the limitations of human information processing (including people with disabilities), rules and guidelines or heuristics allow you to skip known mistakes or sensitivities and ratchet up your creativity from within that potentially confined space. Rule-breaking without considering known issues is just showing off. Real creativity comes from working with very real constraints and balancing those to produce something simple and elegant — and that produces the intended effect for the user, and the business.

Frank Spillers CEO Experience Dynamics headshot
Frank Spillers CEO Experience Dynamics headshot

About the author: Frank Spillers, CEO/ CXO of Experience Dynamics, a leading UX consulting firm with Fortune 500 clients worldwide.

For over 20 years, Frank has been a seasoned UX consultant, Researcher, Designer, and Trainer. He is an award-winning expert in improving the design of digital products, services, and experiences. Frank is a Subject Matter Expert in UX Design, UX Management, Accessibility, Emotion Design, Service Design, Localization UX, Lean UX, VR/ AR UX Design. He provides private corporate training and offers courses to the largest online design organization in the world (Interaction Design Foundation). In 2001, Frank founded UX consulting firm Experience Dynamics. He provides deep learning opportunities at UX Inner Circle.

Experience Dynamics, a leading user experience design consultancy that helps high growth companies manage and win with UX/UI excellence.