Illustration by Matthew Carlson

Understanding the difference between good and bad user experiences can be hard to define. In fact, what constitutes a good experience is often subjective, and will likely vary between different people or contexts. This is why understanding your user is vital to the user experience design process.

Though we cannot explicitly define what a good user experience looks like in every situation, we can turn to guidelines and principles that help us evaluate what is good, and what might detract from a positive experience. We can consider these a guiding light to good UX design.

What is user experience design?

First, to understand what makes for great UX design we need to understand what User Experience covers. Though the craft is most predominant in software product development today, the job of a user experience designer spans far and wide. To put it simply, UXD involves taking a human-centred approach to product (or experience, service etc) development and crafting an experience around the needs, and desires of the target audience. This may take form in many ways, but we’re most familiar with it in our experiences interacting with digital applications.

Evaluating good UX

So then, if what we create is subjective to the people we’re designing for, how can we evaluate what is good and what is not? Thankfully several people have studied this field, and have created conventions and principles to follow to ensure that, regardless of audience, a good user experience is within reach.

An illustration depicts abstract do's and don'ts in a user interface.

Nielsen Norman heuristics

Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group have long been a source of information in the user experience community. Focused on research based user experience design, they have accumulated knowledge around just what makes for successful experiences. Their list of heuristics for interface design are an often-referenced piece of literature that lays out principles to follow when crafting experiences. They are as follows:

  • Visibility of system status. Users should always be informed of what the system, or product is doing, in a reasonable timeline.
  • Match between system and the real world. Avoid technical jargon. The product interface should align to terminology and language familiar to the user.
  • User control and freedom. Mistakes can happen, provide a way out when they do. Supporting undo and redo is one way of achieving this, along with methods of cancelling an operation.
  • Consistency and standards. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Users understand conventions and patterns, and should not have to guess as to what something means. Follow patterns that exist across platforms.
  • Error prevention. Providing feedback when an error occurs is important, but better yet if you can help prevent an error from occurring in the first place. Providing smart defaults, and confirmation is beneficial.
  • Recognition rather than recall. To maximize usability, reduce the load on memory and recall. Avoid hiding important actions behind menus, and instead present options in a visible way so users don’t have to remember where they are.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use. Accommodate both novice and advanced users, but tailor the experience. Provide ways of speeding up workflows, and accelerating users familiar with the system, while guiding those less familiar.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design. Don’t overwhelm users by displaying unnecessary information. Keep screens and dialogues focused and minimal to maximize visibility and clarity.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors. Errors will occur, and it is important to help users understand what caused the error, in plain language, and how they can go about rectifying the situation.
  • Help and documentation. Though it is best to design away the need for help and documentation, it is important to make it accessible when it is needed. Don’t make users struggle to find help, and where possible present it contextually as needed, in plain, clear language.

Following these heuristics will put you on the right path to creating a positive experience. Keep in mind that how these are implemented may change based on your product or user group, and the priority may vary. Be sure to check back in through the process and evaluate your design to ensure they meet your heuristics.

Peter Morville’s User Experience Honeycomb

In a quest to explain the facets of user experience to clients, Peter Morville created the User Experience Honeycomb. In much the same way as Jakob Neilsen’s heuristics, Peter’s Honeycomb outlines core principles for a good user experience.

Peter Morville's User Experience Honeycomb model highlights core principles for good user experiences.
Image credit Semantic Studios.
  • Useful. Oftentimes products are defined by feature requirements; a checklist of items that need to be in the product. As User Experience Designers we need to ask the question, is the product we’re creating useful? Is it helping someone to achieve their goal in a logical, cohesive way?
  • Usable. When we think about user experience we often think of usability and the ease at which someone can operate a product. Though on it’s own it is not sufficient, it is critical to the experience.
  • Desirable. Is what we’re creating interesting to the user base? Being simply usable and useful is one thing, but being desirable can elevate a product experience to the next level. A good experience is one people want to experience.
  • Findable. Getting lost is not fun, whether you’re in a maze or in a digital product. Being able to find what you’re looking for may not solicit rave reviews, but having a difficult to navigate product will certainly bring you negative ones.
  • Accessible. Just as our users vary between products, so do their abilities. Designing a product without considering accessibility is creating roadblocks for segments of the population, creating a restricted experience.
  • Credible. There is ample false information around on the internet today. From copycat websites, to email scams and data privacy issues. Ensuring that users of your product feel safe, and secure, contributes greatly to product experiences today.
  • Valuable. All of this is for not if an experience does not bring value to the customer. As pleasant, usable, or desirable a website is, if there is no inherent value, there is little reason to return.

Pairing Peter’s Honeycomb alongside the usability heuristics, you can begin to understand and define what ‘good’ might look like in user experience. There are many more guidelines and principles available out there to guide your practice, but following these will put you on solid footing for creating a great user experience in your next product or service.
If you’d like to learn more, and see these heuristics in practice, both good and bad, explore these UX design examples.