Designing with the Mind in Mind A Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules

*** Oct142012

Designing with the Mind in Mind may be a good resource for engineers who want to have basic knowledge of user-interface design principles, or for those just beginning to study user-interface design. Author Jeff Johnson uses clear language and plenty of examples to successfully “provide a brief background in the human perceptual and cognitive psychology that underlies interaction design guidelines”, the goal he expresses in the Epilogue (p. 173). For graphic, web, or user interface designers with some experience or a few years of study, however, this book largely covers (what should be) familiar territory.

A word on Gestalt

Yes, it’s fun to have a fancy German word to throw around (not all that fancy — it means shape, or form), and it may be useful at times to put a name to these phenomena of visual perception. But the fact is that the Gestalt principles simply describe what we experience. So any human with vision innately knows what these principles merely put into words. Things that are close together appear to be grouped? Anyone, not just a designer with a discerning eye, can literally see that, without knowing it is the “Gestalt principle of proximity”. So, Chapter 2 on Gestalt principles is brief, but could have been a mere footnote. 1

More on reading and vision

Chapter 4, “Reading is Unnatural” covers guidelines any graphic or web designer worth her salt should already be living by, such as formatting text with a clear hierarchy and avoiding text on a noisy background or with too little contrast. To a designer with a bit of experience or, I’m assuming, a degree in design, these things should come naturally.

There are interesting tidbits to be learned in the chapters on color and peripheral vision, such as the surprisingly small size of the fovea, the area of our eye which constitutes the non-peripheral portion of our visual field (about as big as your thumbnail held out at arm’s length).

Human brains are amazing but also pretty crappy at a lot of things

The latter half of this book delves into more interesting territory, discussing the shortcomings of short and long term memory; why you should let users make choices by recognition rather than recall; the various time constraints inherent in our perceptual systems (you can detect a silent gap in a sustained sound of as little as 1 millisecond!); and using a task-based approach to designing user interfaces. The objects/actions matrix introduced in Chapter 11 is an interesting way to visualize the complexity and learning curve of a user interface.

Even here though, many of the concepts seem obvious. For example: When something goes awry, display a plain-language, helpful error message, rather than a cryptic and unhelpful one. Of course, just because a guideline is obvious does not mean it is always followed (anyone who has used a website or software has probably seen violations of this particular example).

In conclusion

For a straightforward primer on design guidelines and their basis in what we know about human perception and cognition, Designing with the Mind in Mind is a solid starting point. Experienced web, graphic, or user interface designers, however, may not find a lot they don’t already know.

1. Andy Rutledge has a nice series on Gestalt principles

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Author(s)Jeff Johnson
PublisherMorgan Kaufmann

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