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Heuristically Speaking

25 Design Heuristics

A while back I decided it would be helpful to organize a list of design heuristics (call them principles, truisms, or generalities) some other folks had written. The original list I worked from mostly came from well-known practitioners in usability and user centered design — people like Jakob Nielsen (who’s pedagogic style I usually find as easy to digest as sandpaper), as well as some other folks who were able to encapsulate meaningful guidelines and methodologies from the empirical work they were doing at the time.

This research-based approach subsequently created huge in-roads for experience design, as we now know it today — so much, that it’s allowed designers such as myself to transition from designing applications and web products using seemingly blind intuition, to practicing complex observational thinking, ideation, and blink-of-an-eye doing. By problem solving heuristically, rather than prescriptively, we can now apply holistic solutions rather quickly, instead of laboring through seemingly arbitrary and disparate ones.

Large organizations, in particular, have benefited greatly by treating design as an opportunity to apply appropriate objective rationale, while eschewing the usual subjective wants and whimsy so common in design critique and approval processes. Because it’s not just the duty of the designers to think in terms of principle, it’s up to all decision makers.

This kind of thinking isn’t without its problems, though. Often times, it’s easy to slip into an absolute mentality using such broad-based guidelines, when in fact design is often about resolving volitile tensions that lay deep within the problem space. For instance, a particular design might need to be both simple and predictable (a very common expectation), which are many times diametrically opposed to each other when you think about them in terms of principle. This isn’t always easy to resolve and may require a deeper understanding of the business needs or more rigorous analysis of available data points. Ultimately, though, appropriate solutions can be found and balanced through a rational design synthesis. That’s the goal, anyway.

Now, I’d like to make the list of 25 design heuristics available for download, but I’m afraid publishing it wouldn’t be prudent, given that I can’t cite the original authors with 100% accuracy. However, if you contact me, I’ll gladly send it to you.


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