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A guide to design principles (Book Review)

A review of

Laws of UX: Using Psychology to Design Better Products and Services

O’Reilly Media, Inc

338 pages, 5 chapters

About this book

by Jon Yablonski

Book Website

A good reference for Methods/How-To, UX Theory, and Case Studies

Primary audience: Researchers, designers, and technical roles who are new to the topic.

Writing style: Matter of fact

Text density: Equal parts text and images

Learn more about our book review guidelines

How do you justify decisions without data? This question pushed Jon Yablonski to write Laws of UX. Though the ideal scenario is for UX practitioners to do just enough research for each project, occasionally time, budget, organization, or the confidential nature of projects will not allow for project-specific research. Laws of UX is ideal for novice UX designers who need to make a design decision and for researchers and other practitioners who want to understand some of the psychological principles of design. Laws of UX is a helpful resource for the latter. It is a matter-of-fact summary of some fundamental psychological principles of design, with real-life examples to illustrate and clarify their relevance. After reading this book, you’ll be able to articulate the importance of aligning digital products with similar systems that users already use to avoid losing users like Snapchat, the rationale behind having large touch targets to improve usability, and why using the peak-end rule—”People judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, rather than the total sum or average of every moment of the experience (p.53)”– helps create positive, memorable experiences. 

Jon opens the book by describing he was working on a project with a short deadline in a somewhat unfamiliar space. His stakeholders were an additional challenge: they asked him to justify a number of design decisions with data, which he didn’t have. He looked into academic psychology research and other sources but did not find the material relatable or accessible to designers. Jon decided to step in and fill in this gap, so he created a site called Laws of UX. This book expands on that site, focusing on psychological principles and concepts Jon has found particularly useful in his work as a designer.

Laws of UX helps practitioners understand the psychological principles that explain critical design decisions. Though some of the decisions might feel intuitive, the value of this book is that it gives the reader an objective way of explaining and justifying their approach. For example, the number and complexity of options increase users’ time and effort to decide–this is known as Hick’s Law. The issue is that humans have limited working memory, and having too many options saturates our mental bandwidth. A good design approach to avoid overwhelming the user and help them focus on what matters is to minimize the number of options and highlight the recommended ones. He gives the example of remote controllers and how they allow users to make decisions without overwhelming them. One approach the book recommends to identify the users’ expectations about the options and their location is card sorting, which involves asking participants to group said options in groups that make sense to them.

Jon does an excellent job at introducing lesser-known but equally helpful laws. For example, Postel’s Law states, “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.”This principle is about creating resilient designs and anticipating the varied ways users could interact with the product. It means understanding that users are human: distracted, error-prone, driven by emotions, and sometimes inconsistent. One example is Apple’s Face ID, which acknowledges users might want to authenticate their ID using methods other than a password.

One excellent chapter, With Power Comes Responsibility, reminds us that design shapes behavior. As such, we must be mindful of what we are nudging the user to do. For example, infinite loops in autoplay videos are designed to keep users on sites longer, maximizing revenue from static ads. Another example is dark design, which leads users to take actions they didn’t intend to, like making larger purchases or sharing unintended information. One way to ensure we build products and services that support our users’ goals is to think beyond the happy path, consider non-ideal scenarios first, and have diverse teams to avoid echo chambers. Jon closes the book with advice on applying design principles in real life by increasing awareness. Some recommendations are to make these principles visible by physically displaying them or to do show-and-tells with the team.

The book is divided into 12 short chapters. Each of the first ten explains a design law or principle, provides a few examples, and suggests research methods. The two closing chapters discuss ethics and suggestions for the team’s implementation. It is an excellent book for designers to have as a quick reference guide and a great introduction to design principles for non-designers.

Who is this book for

This book is for anyone that wishes to improve their design craft, learn more about the intersection of psychology and design, or simply explore why people react to good design the way they do. It’s aimed at designers who want to have a better understanding of psychology and how it impacts and overlaps with the work we do. It’s for professional and aspiring designers alike: anyone who seeks to understand how the overall user experience is affected by an understanding of human perception and mental processes. While the book is specifically focused on digital design as opposed to the more traditional mediums of graphic or industrial design, the information it contains is broadly applicable to anyone responsible for shaping user experience. I should also mention that it isn’t intended to be a comprehensive resource, but rather an accessible introduction to the psychology fundamentals that have a direct influence on design and how people process and interact with the interfaces we create. It’s full of examples and intended to be easily read and referenced by designers who wish to incorporate this information into their daily work.

Maria Flores

Maria is a mixed-methods UX Researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology with concentrations in Demography, Inequality, and Latinx Studies from Cornell University and a MS in User Centered Design from Brandeis University. Twitter: @maluflores

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