Design thinking | The highway principle

The secret to non-invasive user guidance

Kai Hacker
Jul 3, 2020 · 3 min read
Photo by Kyle Glenn

“The secret to happiness is less choice”, says Barry Schwartz in his TED Talk The Paradox of Choice, concluding that too many choices can overwhelm and make it harder to choose. This leaves people more unhappy with the choice they made, even when it’s a better one.

There is a point to be made here for UI Design, and User Experience in general. Overwhelming users with choices because more equals better can make a product very hard to use, and finding the cause can be even more difficult because no mistakes were made to begin with. However, no mistakes also means no risks were taken, and that’s the true enemy of good product design.

How to guide

Guiding users doesn’t mean telling them what to do. Guidance can be seen as a highway; you know what the main road is and you can drive on it without having to think about it too much. You’re in a flow, and there are lots of exits, but you don’t need to make an active choice not to leave the highway at each and every one. Why is that? Because the exits are clearly secondary choices. If every exit was a fork in the middle of the road, this would be exhausting, but by layout alone, we can distinguish primary guidance (highway) form secondary choices (exits).

The principles behind it

For UI (and therefore alsoUX) this means that giving users a primary choice (often, the call-to-action button) helps them understand what we found to be the most important use-case for most users, without the lengthy explanation. By providing secondary choices, giving them possible exits, we can earn their trust. This makes it easy for them to follow the main“highway” without cornering them. Resulting in that it’s-just-more-intuitive-feeling, because not every decision has to be a 50/50 fork.

Let them explore

Knowing the main road actually invites exploration, because users always know how to get back to the main path, and safe exploration is still the best way for users to learn your application. Users learned this a long time ago when they could click on the logo on any website in the top left corner to return back to safety. But after breadcrumb navigation came along, they didn’t have to anymore. At the same time, a lack of information often equates to a lack of control, causing users to want to start over when they feel lost (see Visibility of System Status from Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics).

Make choices, so they don’t have to

This, of course, needs some tough decision-making in design, and too often the choice is “the user can choose what they like best”. But if you don’t make hard decisions when designing, the user has to make them. And that’s never pleasant.

Suddenly, everything feels like an effort when using your interface. Because users are forced into choices on every turn instead of having that it-just-works joy (see Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman)

A person in front of many stairs and signs, almost M.C. Escher like.
Illustration: upklyak

But cognitive ease is the secret to good guidance here. Knowing where you are and what will happen puts people at ease and builds trust, in the real world as much as in interfaces. And what is “good UX”, if not users actually enjoying using the application you are presenting them with?

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Medicus AI

Medicus is a fast-growing ambitious company committed to…

Medicus AI

Medicus AI is an innovative technology company that helps people understand their health by explaining their medical reports and health data to them in a personalized, easy-to-understand, and visual way.

Kai Hacker

Written by

Medicus AI

Medicus AI is an innovative technology company that helps people understand their health by explaining their medical reports and health data to them in a personalized, easy-to-understand, and visual way.