Icebergs & design principles for digital media

Nate Barrett, Director of Product Management, DDM | @ndbarrett | February 1, 2015


“When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem.” —Buckminster Fuller

What news sites have the best UI/UX? This was a question I recently came across online. It’s a great question. But what makes up a great UX experience? There is a lot more to it than you might think.

User Experience or “UX” has become a popular buzzword in the digital world. Unfortunately, it has come to mean different things to different people. Jesse James Garrett has likened user experience to an iceberg, where UX is much more than what you see on the surface or in the visual design of a product or website. Great UX begins well before the designer decides on the font or color palette. Great design begins with understanding — understanding people’s needs or the problems they need help solving.

“The unseen elements of user experience are the parts of the iceberg that will sink your project while your stakeholders are busy focusing on the ‘tip.’” –Jesse James Garrett

So, what are design principles? Traditional design thinking would tell you design principles are elements such as color, shape, texture, etc. While these are clearly important for creating a beautiful visual design, these only scratch the surface.

User experience design principles go below the surface to focus on the users — or, not just what they see, but how they interact with the product or website design. Design principles are user-focused; they are focused on solving a particular problem. They are strategically aligned with business goals.

Users’ expectations frame their user experience, ultimately leading to a positive or negative experience, which in turn leads to positive or negative results of a user’s desire to purchase, return or share.

With this understanding, the Deseret News digital team adapted five design principles that drive their product/website development.

Design for users’ intents

This design principle helps us to focus on the foundation or bottom of the iceberg. It’s the strategy that directs the UX design.

Our strongest desire is to understand our readers’ needs or goals. We respect the context of our readers, including when and where they might consume our content. We will provide them with the content they care about most and remove what isn’t meeting their goal.

Less is more

We need to omit needless features. It’s easier to find what you’re looking for when there is less to look through. The fewer the distractions, the more the reader can focus on his or her goal. Whitespace is beautiful and clean. We will focus on doing a few things well, rather than everything mediocrely.

Design with data

This principle supports elements of structure and scope by understanding user interactions and content needs by observing the data.

Data, or Web analytics, provides objective insight on ways to improve. Your opinion, while interesting, doesn’t matter compared with your readers’ opinions. Their interactions with our content by click or tap informs us of their needs, frustrations, and what’s working or not working.

Value and maintain elegant simplicity

Simplicity is often found by fewer clicks — simpler navigation. This principle supports the “skeleton” or navigational design.

We aim to delight our readers in a way that makes them want to return over and over again. We want our readers to feel smart for having used our product, rather than feeling stupid for not understanding how. We will never settle for good enough.

Iterate: build, measure, learn

Web development has simplified software. We no longer build a product or feature over a period of months with software updates. The Internet allows for agility. We can literally build something and release it to our users the same day. Web analytics allow us to measure the success of what we release and learn what needs to be modified or removed.

The principle of iterating allows us to adjust any or all levels of the user experience iceberg in order to improve users’ experience with our product. This is a key principle to continuous improvement and user-centered design.

There are many great examples of user experience design innovation taking place in digital media. Here are a few examples:

Yahoo! News Digest - A native application that delivers the top global news headlines in a quick visual summary, twice a day.

Vox Media - Storystream - Populates a writer’s updates in real time to provide an organized and intuitive history of complex breaking news.

Quartz - “Ads that don’t suck” - Ads designed to fit seamlessly with the articles around them.

So to design a great user experience, we need to look deeper than the interface. We need to follow user-centered design principles and focus on our users and their problems.

UX = Solving the right user problem

Other organizations' product design principles

More about the User Experience Iceberg