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UX Design Rules That Are Meant To Be Broken

User experience design is based on some fundamental principles for sure: the user’s feedback matters, the overall user flow should be clear and not burdensome, the product function should fit seamlessly into a user’s life, and so on.  Those are pretty important ones to stick to you and you should check in with them at every stage of product development.  On the other, there are tons of minor rules about how best to design this element or that–and they don’t always work for your specific product and its context!  Certain rules are indeed made to be broken, and UX design is no exception to that motto.

If you follow every design guideline religiously, you’ll run into a bit of trouble.  Design suggestions are often contradictory, narrow-minded, updated with the times, or simply inapplicable to a specific product.  Every digital experience and every digital audience is different; the design rules you choose to apply should take that uniqueness and diversity into account.  So what are some “famous” (or infamous) design rules that you might want to break, at least now and then?  Read on.

1. The Golden Ratio.

FastCo Design recently ran a piece on the golden ratio, a often-quoted design rule that proports that visual objects that are presented in an impossible, irrational ratio (approximately 1.6180) are more aesthetically pleasing to the viewer.  Ie “two objects are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities,” as Euclid would say if it was a couple millenia in the past.  So there’s a few things wrong with this particular theory.  For one thing, there’s no perfection in the real world so you’re never encounter a true golden ratio.  For another thing, there’s very little behind the validity of the theory besides the theory.  In other words, it’s likely that enough people said that the golden ratio was true that the rest of us started believing in it.  In conclusion, whether in UX design or any other, go for the ratios that make sense for your audience and feel right to you–not false promises of gold and ancient mathematics.

2. There’s a right color for every type of product.

We do place some stock (quite a bit actually) in color psychology, or the way that colors affect our decisions and emotions.  Over 80% of users consider color the primary reason they purchase a product, and over 90% use visual experience as a primary factor in buying a product. Color psychology is all about influencing the subconscious.  But some designers take this a step too far and prescribe a color scheme for every segment of the industry.  Technology companies have to use blue, food companies have to use yellow and orange, etc.  We don’t need to be quite so restrictive; there are plenty of ways to speak to the emotions in your brand without following a prescribed formula.  If you’re a luxury food brand, for example, you might end up using more black than traditional food sales colors.  You’ll never know until you try, or, as in the golden rule of UX design, you’ll never know until you A/B test.

3. There’s no space for ugly.

What’s smart, fresh design versus what is “ugly” can sometimes be a fine line.  And in the realm of user experience design, sometimes the ugly thing can precisely get the job done. Take a look at Amazon’s add-to-cart button below, for example.  It’s in a peculiar yellow-orange that isn’t immediately captivating or gorgeous–but it does get the clicks and help Amazon turnover lots of product in their online store.  They’ve used a so-called “ugly” color to their advantage to drive sales forward, because that ugly button definitely stands out.

Not this kind of ugly!

4. Everything needs to be hyper-interactive, and 3D.

There was a trend in the few years before this one that favored “skeumorphic” design.  Basically, skeumorphic design uses elements like highlights and shadows to create the illusion of 3D on a 2D surface (screen).  You can see a couple examples below of what skeumorphic design has looked like.  

Skeumorphic design at work.

These days, flat design is more favored.  We’ve let go of some of that hyper-identifiability for a reduction in visual noise and space.  So you don’t need to have big flashing lights telling your users how to find every single thing on their page; user flow can also be a gentle process.

Google’s updated material design framework is a great resource for those who are looking to branch out into flatter design.  Material design is based on a few fundamental principles.  First, visual cues and elements should be grounded in reality, but also have possibility for the imagination and innovation that comes from the virtual world.  In other words, pay attention to physics but be willing to break its rules.  Second, design needs to be attentive to established typographic design principles that help establish hierarchy, boldness, and organization.  Third, the user should be the primary initiator of motion and their user experience should have continuity even as the shift and move things around in the UX environment.  Our own site at GobySavvy is actually built based on Google’s fundamental material design principles.

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About the author:

Janani B.

Janani has a Master's in Design Thinking and writes frequently about UX, design, psychology, and other topics.