5. User-Interface Design

Design Principles – Part 5 of 5

Universal Principles of Design, a book describing 125 interdisciplinary principles, is a fascinating reference. I extract 25 of those principles and offer relevant examples in a series of five blogs.

Today’s topics – user-interface design:

  1. Alignment
  2. Chunking
  3. Comparison
  4. Five Hat Racks
  5. Operant Conditioning


 “The placement of elements such that edges line up along common rows or columns, or their bodies along a common centre.”

AlignmentWhen elements in a design are aligned with other elements, the effect is unity and cohesion, which contribute to the design’s overall appeal and perceived stability. Alignment gives information order and allows a person to navigate the information in an orderly fashion. Data arranged in a chart or grid helps the reader understand the relationships between elements.

In paragraph text, left-aligned or right-aligned content provides opportunities for alignment of other elements. Text that is centred does not provide this organizational cue. For more complex configurations, used justified text.


 “A technique of combining many units of information into a limited number of units or chunks, so that the information is easier to process and remember.”

Grouping numbers together is an example of chunkingA chunk is a unit of information – a series of numbers, a set of letters, or a word. Chunking seeks to package information in small units to ease the load on short-term memory. The maximum number of units that can be processed by short-term memory is 4 +/- 1.

Chunk information for audiences who are required to recall or retain information. In noisy or distracting environments, chunk information to alleviate the load when short-term memory is diminished by stress.


 “A method of illustrating relationships and patterns in system behaviors by representing two or more system variables in a controlled way.”

Comparison3Represent information in controlled ways so that comparisons can easily be made.

Use comparisons to illustrate patterns and relationships of elements to one another. Make sure that the variables of elements are measured in common ways, i.e., apples to apples.

Five Hat Racks

“There are five ways to organize information: category, time, location, alphabet, and continuum.”

Periodic table of chemical elementsTake similar items and tease out one common characteristic (such as category, time, location, alphabet, or continuum) for use as a basis to organize those items.

The periodic table organizes elements by their chemical properties (category).

For an entertaining and educational explanation of the organizational characteristics, view YouTube video Five Hat Racks produced for a university class assignment.

Operant Conditioning

“A technique used to modify behavior by reinforcing desired behaviors, and ignoring or punishing undesired behaviors. ”

OperantConditioning2Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Operant conditioning is commonly applied to animal training, instructional design, video game design, gambling devices, incentive programs, counselling, and behavioral therapy.

There are three basic operant conditioning techniques: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Positive reinforcement associates a behaviour change with a positive outcome such as an edible treat or monetary reward.

Mouse holding sign that reads "Will press lever for food."

Negative reinforcement rewards a behaviour change with the removal of a negative condition such as the silencing of a car buzzer the moment a seatbelt is buckled.

Punishment decreases the probability of a behaviour by linking the behaviour with a negative condition that costs the learner. A video game player loses points on a given action or a driver pays a fine for a speeding infraction.

Use operant conditioning in situations where behavioural change is desired. It is better to focus on positive and negative reinforcement rather than punishment. Punishment should be reserved for quickly terminating a behaviour or it should not be used at all.

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