11 Best Kept Secrets to Designing for Usability

Designing for usability in the software and web services industry is an immense challenge. Users often don’t realize just what a challenge this provides and they tend to assume that it is in fact less of a difficulty with the diversity and complexity of modern technology, versus the limitations imposed by older technology.

This could not be further from the truth in fact. The problem is, users have so long held this belief that many designers are beginning to pick up this misconception as well, even Microsoft’s been guilty of it lately as well as Apple.

Let’s look at the top 11 secrets to designing for usability, with hopes to abate this problem for future designers. These aren’t end-all solutions, as technology changes so quickly, and the public view of how things should work sways with the wind. But, these are generally the best precepts to bear in mind when designing software or interfaces today.


#1 – Using Real Estate Wisely
Using screen real estate wisely is probably one of the most important things that designers don’t do in modern times. Wasting screen real estate with large, mostly empty windows will infuriate users, and it greatly breaks the aesthetic of the interface as well. Avoid making a menu fill a screen when it does not need to. This goes the same for not using enough, and scrunching things into small fields where they require too much scrolling. Speaking of scrolling …

#2 – Using Scrolling Wisely
Understand that scrolling isn’t something users just take for granted as something that must exist. Infinite scrolling only works in certain types of interface, primarily ones with no looped navigation.
Also understand that nobody likes horizontal scrolling, so designing an interface to avoid this as much as possible is always an important goal to have.

#3 – Menu Centrality
Unless designing for a tablet, and even then to some extent, it’s best to avoid the page or “stacked card” interface layout. A common example of this layout is Windows 8, which is unanimously hated by pretty much everyone.
This layout concept is awful and makes the user feel as if they can never see all of their information at a given time. Simply avoid this, really even for tablets if possible.

#4 – Color Schemes
Using color schemes wisely, and picking a base set of about five is always important. Too many colors, or clashing or too-similar colors can result in the interface being hard to read and hard to look at.

#5 – Shortcut Keys
When designing with PCs in mind especially, shortcut keys are important to not only make available, but to make easy to use. After Windows XP, windows shortcut keys became kind of awful, and fast one-handed typing of them became impossible to do. Never underestimate a power user’s ability to not only learn but develop an affinity for shortcuts like these.

#6 – Avoid Touch Dependence
Touch technology is prevalent on handheld devices like mobiles and tablets, and for obvious reasons, but designing for usability means not overemphasizing it too much. Requiring elaborate multi-touch actions for tasks will frustrate users in the long run. It is best to treat it like a tap interface, not unlike the point and click of PC interfaces.

#7 – Scalability
Designing an interface to smartly scale to make the best use of screen rations and/or window states is important as well. In a PC environment, users want to be able to maximize windows, or set them as free-floating windows as well. On mobile, users will need it to suit whatever device they have, so that it never looks awkward and designed for just one resolution or dimensional layout.

#8 – Allow Custom Settings
Custom settings can be simple as allowing users to choose fonts and colors, as well as turn off features or components they do not use. This goes a long way to allowing a user to optimize their program, and not feel encumbered. Remember, not everyone’s eyes like every color scheme, and not everyone needs every feature software may provide.

#9 – Avoid Excess Docks
Docks are window components that lock into stacked series on the top, left, right or bottom of an application. These are unavoidable in mobile design, and can be useful in PC designs, but it is best to avoid abusing them.
If there is a work space, it is best to not have docks on all four sides of it, nor is it ever a good idea to have two sets of docks anywhere. Adobe is very guilty of this practice.

#10 – Wording and Size Consistency
When there are many windows, pages or menus in an interface, the wording scheme should remain consistent across them, so that if one button says “ok”, they all should, if they serve the same local purpose, rather than another saying “okay” and another saying “accept”. At the same time, all buttons of similar purpose should retain the same size and rules in code.

#11 – Avoid Tips of the Day
Nobody likes tip of the day notices, which are more prevalent in PC design but are showing up on mobile too. People just regard them as a pop up that they have to close, as they will seek the contained information when they need it, not when the program deigns to show it. Avoid these, but if they must be there, allow users to always disable it if they desire to.

These are the 11 biggest things that designers need to bear in mind when designing for usability in modern  Ux software and services, but the list could go on forever if permissible.