7 Universal principles of user experience

A set of guiding principles for the design of digital user experiences across web sites, mobile devices, and social networks.

I started a new job, daunted by redesigning the flagship web site for a non-profit that serves 16 million people in 120+ countries.

After trying for months to evaluate the best way to make an impact I determined the org needed a pattern library, a component system, shared set of icons, and more importantly, some governing principles that the leadership could buy into.

When I took on the role of UX Director at a large non-profit between 2013 and 2017 I I had no idea there were 60 people practicing UX accross 3 departments on 5 different URLs.

The designers were spread across 4 or 5 floors and in 3 different buildings. Small teams operated in almost total isolation: a team of one here, a team of 2 there. The largest team had about 5. It took several months just to learn who everybody was, and what they were working on. People in the org were operating without central design leadership, without a style guide, or a design pattern library. Teams were governed by what they could get approved by their individual stakeholders, and their assigned dev team.

Context about the non-profit I worked for

Feel free to jump ahead to principle one if you’re bored with backstory. This context probably relates to many UX practitioners out there, feeling alone sometimes in a big organization.

I wrote these principles as a charter of sorts for the non-profit leaders who reviewed and approved all the UX design work. I didn’t have organizational buy-in to help each team create a unified product vision, instead I worked with the central communications department to roll out the set of UX foundational principles they could point to as a North Star of sorts.

The organization had a habit of creating content without product plans or marketing plans.

The Product Managers’ approach usually went something like:

  1. Get enough funding to design the pages and sub-navigation for your section of the site, with a unique look and feel, often a unique navigation style, designed by your team without talking to other designers. Bonus points if your executives approve a new brand or look, usually a subdomain or a vanity URL.
  2. Have your subject matter experts in your department write the content without input from professional copywriters, content strategists, or UX writers.
  3. Launch your content.
  4. Hope your target audience finds your content, or hears about it via word of mouth. By the way, your audience is anyone who is living, so gather any anecdotes you can about how impactful your product launch was.

After a decade of this behavior the result is hundreds of thousands of web pages, on about 5 main sites. The navigation model of the main site is 7 categories wide, and in some places 12 categories deep.

01 //


Change your mindset

Yes, your users might still be making an HTTP request to view your website. Think bigger. The web site is a service you provide for people and your job is to decide what your service is doing for your user. Make a list of the jobs to be done (JTBD).

Have your team make two lists

List one: What should a person feel when they use your site/app/service? (This is more like brand attributes and it will make your stakeholders feel like you’re on the right track.)

Feeling: I want a small dessert after a long day of school shopping.

List two: What tasks is a person performing? This list is a lot more actionable. When you pair up both lists they should make sense together.

Doing: I want to purchase a frozen yogurt with some crunchy/chewy bits on top.

Digital content is no longer restricted to web browser; rather, digital content is accessed using native mobile apps, set-top TV apps, and tablets. Digital content and tools should be designed as a service, that is capable of being deployed anywhere, instead of static information deployed onto a PC screen. Tell the content marketers in your org that you get it when they say, “create once, publish everywhere.”

Even if your friend is a contest friend you can ask yourself, “what is my audience hiring my content to do for them?“ additionally have your team make two lists one list of the way Waze you hope your audience feel when using your digital services. The second list should be to create the second list ask your team to write down the things you’re The task your audience does using your digital properties.

Computing between 1960 and 2000 happened in fixed locations.

Responsive web design requires that you stop imagining your users in a fixed location, typing with a keyboard. Computing is multi-screen.

Print Versus Digital
Print publishing is often a singular, linear experience. Digital experiences are open-ended because they can start on one device and end on another. Digital is continuous and non-linear.

When you err on the side of providing tools, not just delivering content, you are removing the false idea that users consume your digital product in a predictable, single-track way.

Prepare your videos, articles, and other materials in such a way that is not specific to one particular channel, but rather available through a variety of digital ways.

// 02

Talk like your audience

Be real, authentic, and conversational. In today’s marketplace people value advice and recommendations from friends, family, other people they know, and even strangers over official corporate messages or advertisements. As further evidence, Millenials (the coveted age 18-34 demographic) don’t affiliate with political parties and they’re moving away from organized religion. Messages provided through digital channels should be real, authentic, and conversational. They should be presented in a way users can relate to.

Encourage users to speak naturally and without your brand or organizaiton’s jargon as they share content.

// 03

Content isn’t worth making if it’s not shareable

Provide digital content that users can easily share with others. Digital experiences should enable users to share content with others efficiently, whether by retweeting, reposting, or using other personal social sharing means. This imbues content with power to reach people in ways that official publishing channels cannot. For example, a 3-minute highlight video may be more shareable than a complete 12-minute keynote speech.

// 04

Create living content

Keep digital content fresh, relevant, and rewarding. Except for historical or reference material, content should feel current. Consumers of digital content expect to find relevant, current content when they access a digital service.

Replace old content instead of posting new material in a new place.

// 05

Define success and test it

Test content and interface elements to ensure they achieve your success criteria. How can you measure success unless you define what success looks like? Then test regularly. Testing while you write and design can save your organization time and money in the long run. Utilizing usage metrics, observing user behavior and talking to users can help you adapt to changing needs and ensure that you meet your objectives.

// 06

Design with empathy

Know your users and design for them — not for your organization, or your stakeholders. (And never design for your portfolio!) This principle takes you back full circle to context. If you started with context you understand a persons’ motivations, goals, and context. Users want relevant content and simple tools that improve their lives. Research and testing will help you truly understand your users’ needs. Understanding your actual users’ behavior, perceptions, and habits will help you avoid your organizations’ and your personal bias that might prevent you from innovating about actual peoples’ needs.