3 rules for a good user experience (UX)

3 rules for a good user experience (UX)

Summary: The proliferation of mobile systems in different forms makes building a good UX a critical function of the design.

Multiple gadgets
Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Mobile computers come in all sizes creating a big challenge for system designers to make them work well for users. The addition of touch to smartphones, tablets, and laptops has appealed to users but increases the need for OS architects to implement touch operation in a way that makes sense. There are three rules that should never be violated when designing mobile user interfaces (UI) that go a long way to making for a good UX.

I'm not a mobile UI designer nor do I play one on TV, but having used thousands of mobile devices over the years I have seen first-hand what works and more importantly what doesn't work when it comes to a good UX. There are three rules of UX design that have come out of this experience with mobile devices.

  1. The user should never, ever have to stop to think how to do something. It must be natural and intuitive.
  2. Operation must be consistent in all areas of the UI.
  3. See rule 1.

It must be natural

The ability to pick up a gadget and do things without overthinking how it works is not only a good thing, it's what buyers have come to expect.

Mobile devices can be used in several different styles, from in the hand to on a table in front of the user. No matter how the UI will be manipulated, the operation must feel natural to the user at all times. The only way to accomplish this is to make all aspects of the operation as intuitive as possible.

Few things affect the perception that operating a mobile device is a good UX than making such operation possible without forcing the user to stop and think about it. When operating a specific control is required, a good UX lets the user activate it without pause. Muscle memory becomes a big part of a good UX and that means operation requires no active thought. 

This is especially important with systems that offer more than one way to manipulate the OS. Microsoft has designed Windows 8 to handle various methods of controlling the OS, an ambitious project which it has executed reasonably well. Users can use the touch screen on devices that have one, use a multitouch trackpad, or use a mouse. 

See related: Windows 8 hybrids: Hot to build the perfect laptop and tablet combo | MacBook Air and Pro: No touch screen required

Perhaps most importantly, users of Windows 8 systems can interchange use of these different input methods. That Microsoft has made this possible is a fantastic achievement, but even so, at times operating a Windows 8 device can be a bit overwhelming. That's the price of designing the OS to handle such different usage scenarios. That sometimes makes working with a system with multiple input methods less natural feeling than I like. 

Other mobile OSes have it easier than Windows 8 in this area, simply because they only handle touch operation. They don't handle mobile devices with trackpads or mice, so they don't have to design intuitive controls for them. They are touch screen only, and that makes things easier for users, albeit more restrictive in use cases.

To sum up rule one of UX design, all aspects of supported operation must be intuitive which leads to controls that feel natural. Users should be able to fire up a mobile device and be able to start doing things without having to futz around to figure out where the UI controls are located. Those controls should be manipulated intuitively as it feels unnatural when using systems that make you constantly stop and figure out how to accomplish a simple task.

Consistency is the key

A major part of creating a UX that is natural and intuitive is to make common system controls consistent throughout operation. While handling different input methods mey require building multiple methods to execute tasks, these should operate the same way across all of those methods.

If you have to do things on a touch screen that are radically different using a mouse for example, the UX suffers. These are the sort of design choices that stop the user cold as they must learn two different ways to do the same thing. This directly impacts the perception of the UX as a whole.

Perhaps the best example of how a lack of consistency across system operation affects the UX is the back button in the Android OS. This button (physical or soft) is designed into the Android OS and is present on every device, both phones and tablets. It allows the user to get back to the last screen they were using with a simple tap of the button, at least in theory.

While this sounds like the very definition of consistency, being present on every Android device and always available to the user, its implementation is anything but consistent. Usually the back button works as expected, and it steps back one screen within the app being used. Sometimes however, instead of stepping back in the app it throws the user back to the Android home screen unexpectedly. This completely stops the user in his/her tracks, something that is never a good UX. It would almost be better for the back button to do nothing in this situation.

A good UX offers consistent operation across all input control metods, and in both apps and the OS. Users should be able to use the same touch/mouse gestures in apps as they do on the home screen. This consistency will lead to a good, natural UX.


Building an OS that is intuitive to use is the cornerstone to making a UX that users will come to love. That's a big reason that mobile devices have been adopted by millions of consumers. The ability to pick up a gadget and do things without overthinking how it works is not only a good thing, it's what buyers have come to expect. This is so important it bears repeating over and over, thus rule 3.

A good UX is one that allows the user to interact with the system consistently no matter what he/she is doing. No fumbling trying to find system controls, no manipulating them in different ways depending on where in the system the user is working. One touch, one gesture, in both apps and the OS desktop. 

This sounds easy but designing a UI that yields a good UX is incredibly difficult. I have great respect for system designers and engineers who are tasked with such a monumental task. I do believe that following these guidelines can help make their job easier, and the user's life much better.

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Mobile OS, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • yeah right

    The problem isn't thinking and your critical thinking needs tuning.

    The problem lies with hidden controls and the fact that people don't like them.

    Windows 8, WebOS, Blackberry New OS all have hidden controls and none of them are setting the world on fire.
    • Mystery Meat Navigation is both standard and bane of current UI design...

      Hidden UI elements have become de riguer across most computing devices, much to the detriment of actual users. Whether driven by reduced screen real estate (eg removing obvious scrollbars from smartphones) or aesthetics (eg controls/options that don't appear until the user triggers them via mouseover or other non-visible method), the uncluttered screens often make a good initial impression but cause end-user issues over time.

      An example from personal experience: I couldn't find some settings on my iPad because I didn't know I needed to scroll down to them. No visible scrollbar, and the layout made it look like the last visible item on the bottom of the screen was the last item on the list. Even the many help pages failed me, because most never mentioned the need to scroll - the assumed the user knew about the scrolling. Now, because of the lack of a visible scrollbar, I always attempt a scroll whenever I see a fullscreen list/page. That's more effort on my part, and a definite annoyance. And this specific issue isn't limited to Apple!

      MS has long had their own UI-breaking applications: changing the look/size of the min/max/close buttons, changing the location of menus, etc. While I really like how the Zune software manages podcasts, the Zune UI breaks many of the standard Windows conventions. Most browsers are also guilty of breaking the overall OS UI design.
  • stopped reading when it says win 8 has good ux

    The biggest joke ever released by msft in terms of ux. 2 oses that behave differently. Having to mouse over mysterious sections of the screen to reveal important functions, swipe gestures that produce different outcomes. ... etc.

    Get real. Windows 8 is a mockery to the UX. MSFT must have paid for this article.
  • No.

    You seem to ramble on about UX theory after throwing up a disclaimer that you're not a UI designer then a few paragraphs in we get to this "..Microsoft has designed Windows 8 to handle various methods of controlling the OS, an ambitious project which it has executed reasonably well" which reveals your real agenda; promoting Windows 8.

    While Windows 8 is not a horrible experience it certainly is not intuitive. Tapping corners without any visual UI cue present to guide you there is not intuitive Sr. Having core functionality tucked away outside the margins of the left and right sides of the screen, requiring swipe to access and no visual cue to the user how to get there is NOT intuitive Sr.

    What's more embarrassing about your article is how you go on to try and criticize the Android back button because of it's lack of consistency? What little credibility you had was lost with those comments as any Android user will tell you the back button becomes a core part of the user experience and very critical one at that. When it is inconsistent that's always contextual to specific applications and within a few uses the user intuitively discovers how the back button will work within the context of that application.

    I understand Microsoft needs its fan boys too. Again, I don't hate Windows 8 or Windows RT. I think active tiles and the flat aesthetic were innovations, but beyond that Windows 8 is still a mess of a product, trying to please too many use case scenarios. Considering what all it's trying to do (morph between desktop, notebook and tablet OS) it's commendable, but sadly it was the wrong direction.

    For the same reasons Apple did not try to put Mac OS X on and iPad, Microsoft should have let Windows RT be their tablet OS and wait a while for things to mature. Instead now we have a slew of Intel Atom based Windows 8 tablets that crawl like a turtle out of the shrink wrap, become eaten alive by bloat ware and malware attacks within a few months of use and anger users because all the backwards compatibility they thought they were buying is crippled by less than capable hardware.

    On the high-end you have devices like the Surface Pro which is a pretty darn good product capable of serving a user the all capacities of an ultrabook and a tablet. It's like getting Microsoft's counterpart to a Mac Book Air and an iPad rolled into one. Except their "brilliant" marketing department decided not to sell it like that.

    I would also argue that UX becomes pointless when it runs on poor speced hardware. Sluggish performance, frequent crashes and horrible battery life all play a role in the UX it extends well beyond just the software and that is something only the folks in Cupertino are currently getting right.
    Jeremy Deats
  • Maybe this is why I hate apple UX

    apple has no ability to create consistent, intuitive UXs. With my iphone and ipad, I constantly struggled with how to accomplish my goals. Sometimes you had to do things one way, sometimes another, depending on how the apple engineer felt that day when they implemented the UI. apple UIs are a jumbled mess of confusion that work against any possibility of working the way I need it to work.

    That is why Windows 8 is such a breath of fresh air. It works consistently the way I need it to work, the way my muscles remember actions. Then it gets out of the way to show me the content. apple has a lot to learn from Microsoft when it comes to designing good UX.

    But, I hope they keep fiddling with the thickness of their fonts while ignoring all the massive UI fails that are in ios. As long as it takes.
    • One line says it all

      your muscle memory.

      It doesn't say anything about iOS if you're sticking to your old patterns. And I really don't know how you considered it difficult to do tasks on an iPhone considering the fact that they made the UI as dumbed down as possible.
      Michael Alan Goff
      • I used ios for over 2 years

        If it takes longer than that to gain muscle memory, there is something very wrong with the UX.

        And I don't understand how anyone can have problems with Windows 8.
        • We're in agreement on that last part

          But the problem with the muscle memory is if you weren't really trying. If you kept trying to use it like something else, you'd constantly have trouble.
          Michael Alan Goff
          • I tried for 2 years

            ios is just a confusing mess of a UX. How much longer should I have tried?

            Like I said, if 2 years isn't enough, the UX is a fail.
          • I'm curious...

            other than the obvious mental health issues, do you have any physical problems that prevented you from figuring out an interface that I've watched two year olds use?
          • Some people could say the same about Windows

            but that hardly means that Windows has a "fail UX". \

            It means it doesn't work -for you-.
            Michael Alan Goff
    • Whereas for other people...

      I once asked a UX designer for some information that he said he was stored on his phone - a company telephone number, I believe. So he leant me his shiny new iPhone and left me to retrieve the information myself, without any help from him at all. It was the very first time I'd ever tried using an iPhone too.

      It took me about 3 minutes.

      Basically, the experience had been an impromptu UX experiment - and the iPhone passed.
  • There is also the issue of Look and Feel

    You have done a good job writing about how the interface is used in determining what a good user experience is, but failed to mention "look and feel". I agree that this is subjective, however, when you look at the complaints that many have towards Windows 8, a lot of the complaints revolve around "look and feel." Learning how Windows 8 - and other OSs - function isn't difficult, but having to stare at a screen all day on a UI that you don't like is.
  • Well done James

    In 3 weeks you have been accused of being a paid Google shill, an Apple fan-boy, and today promoting Windows (and MS by extension).

    The more sensible of us, will take this as a relief that your are truly making use of devices from all major ecosystems, and offer a more rounded opinion than those who silo themselves in one platform.