10 Laws of UX, design, and engineering

These maxims provide some (hopefully sage) perspectives on issues we all face when designing or developing.

Like so many others, I’m always writing in my notebooks. Going over them, I noticed there were quite a number of “laws” in there — so I figured, let’s try and do a quick rundown of all these laws, and see what they tell us.

Amara’s Law

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effects in the long run. For example: the Internet generated an enormous amount of hype which led to the dot-com bubble crash in 2001 — the short term effects were not as big as the market anticipated, but the long-term effects of the Internet (as we now know) have been a continuing growth driver up until this day.

Fitt’s Law

The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target. As the distance increases, movement takes longer and as the size decreases selection again takes longer (so basically, if you want to make it easy to hit something with a mouse pointer, you should position the target nearby, and make it big.)

Hick’s Law (also known as Hick-Hyman’s Law)

The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. And as the decision time increases, the user experience suffers. So basically if you give a user more choices .. it will take him longer to think about these choices and actually make a decision.

Hofstadter’s Law

It always takes longer than you expect — even when you know about Hofstadter’s law, and take it into account when estimating.

Jacob’s Law of User Experience

Coined by Jacob Nielsen, this law goes something like “users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” It is good advice to not try and reinvent any wheels unless they actually need reinventing.

Law of 2 feet

If you aren’t learning or contributing where you stand right now, use your 2 feet and go somewhere where you can learn or contribute. This is maybe not strictly a UX law, but I’ve included it here because I find it so great, philosophically speaking. It puts the onus on you to make an effort, which is an essential attitude to have!

Law of Prägnanz

People will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images in the simplest form possible because it is the interpretation that requires the least cognitive effort of us. This is a fundamental principle of gestalt theory, and also a characteristic of the human mind: we make sense out of things, automatically.

Miller’s Law

The average person can only keep 7 (plus / minus 2) items in their working memory. This is not so much a “law” as a suggestion to be mindful of reducing the number of things people actually need to remember.

Parkinson’s Law

Any task will inflate until all of the available time is spent. We’ve probably all experienced this, sitting in some meeting that could have been over in 20 minutes but was scheduled for an hour. Those last forty minutes somehow get used anyway.

Tesler’s Law

For any system, there is a certain amount of complexity that cannot be reduced. As such, it must be handled either by you, the designer or by the user. For example: if your application requires a user to jump through a 10-second hoop, it will quickly amount to millions of seconds wasted. It would be better, overall, if time was spent improving the application, so the users do not waste their time.