In a digital world, design isn't just a glossy surface treatment to make an app or website look good. Thoughtful user interface design improves digital product experiences, boosting usability, accessibility, and inclusion for global users. With thousands of designers worldwide now building UI with Figma, Figma Advocacy Director Thomas Lowry has noticed that the best examples follow five UI design best practices. Read on to find out how you can serve users better, and make every creative decision matter.


What are UI design principles?


In digital design, UI design principles are the overarching guidance designers rely on to create designs that serve and delight users. "Our job as digital designers is to help users navigate to the content and features they need, to accomplish what they want to do," Tom says. "UI design principles take inspiration from gestalt principles of human perception, grouping design elements into simple patterns users can easily follow to reach their goals."


Why UI design principles matter?


Applying best practices in UI design makes digital products easier for everyone to use, follow, and enjoy.  "Think of a user as someone asking you directions. If you just showed them a map and expected them to memorize it, they're probably going to get lost," Tom says. "But if you point them to a sign that says their destination is this way, and they can follow the signs from there? That's a much better experience. UI design principles help you set up signs users can follow towards their goals—one click, scroll, or interaction at a time."


Clear, consistent UI design principles make decision-making easier for designers, too. Establishing UI design principles up front lifts the cognitive load for designers and makes product teams more efficient. Figma data analysts found that participants with access to a design system completed their design objective 34% faster than without a design system.


5 UI design principles to improve your product


Figma's community of designers have shared hundreds of UI kits, templates and plugins, and the most successful examples have five UI design principles in common. "Applying these five UI principles together will help improve any digital product," says Tom.  "You can provide helpful cues by applying core graphic design principles, like hierarchy, consistency, and alignment. But for digital designers to truly excel at UI, they also need to understand how to use progressive disclosure and contrast to improve usability and accessibility."


1. Hierarchy


Designers use hierarchy to help users recognize key information, and distinguish them from less important elements at a glance. "I often compare designing a digital product or website to designing a book," Tom says. "On every page, navigational cues remind you of the title, chapter, and content section, so you never get lost."


Like graphic designers, digital designers often play with the scale, weight, and color of fonts and other visual elements—but Tom encourages practicing restraint where possible.  "How can you draw attention to the most important elements without introducing too many differentiators? Can you establish hierarchy using only space?" he asks.


"Be intentional about what goes where on a screen, especially what users see first and what they have to scroll to see," Tom suggests. "Consider how you prioritize information: your UI content hierarchy should reflect what the user cares about most."


2. Progressive disclosure


UX designers typically  use progressive disclosure to guide users through a multi-step process, providing the right amount of information to make clear choices at each step. UI designers can borrow this approach to prioritize what to include in UI—and what to exclude.  "Too many features can be overwhelming, especially when there are many decisions to make," explains Tom.

"Smart digital designers sequence features and  flows, to make the experience feel  less overwhelming," says Tom. "Consider the UX example of a product onboarding flow, which asks you all about yourself: your name, your contact information, your role and industry, maybe what interests you in this product. If you had to answer all that at once, that screen could look like a long form to fill out—and you might give up before you got started," Tom says.


One watchout with progressive disclosure is to make sure you don't lose users along the way. "Give users a way to orient themselves, so they know where they are and how many steps they have to go," Tom recommends. "I remember a conference rating tool that asked attendees which of two talks they liked best. That's fine if you only went to two talks—but people who attended many talks had to keep repeating this step, with no sense of progress. That tool needed a different format and a completion bar, so users can see how much progress they're making toward a finish line."


3. Consistency


Users might not know quite what to expect from your digital product—especially if you're launching a brand new technology or concept. A design system can make your UI easier to follow with consistent design cues. With recognizable signposts and predictable controls, users can quickly navigate your UI and take charge of their experience—instead of getting lost or frustrated.

Consistency makes life easier for designers, too. "Design systems create consistency and optimize for repeatability, but there's an efficiency part of it too," Tom notes. "Why reinvent the wheel each time you need to create a button? Use consistent patterns, and over time, that button will become familiar and predictable to the user."


Continuity becomes increasingly important as users advance through a flow. "If one UI button is suddenly bigger, users are going to wonder why," Tom says. "That irregularity adds to users' cognitive load, creating hesitancy and confusion. So you need a good rationale when you deviate from established patterns. "


4. Contrast


UI designers carefully contrast colors and luminosity to make designs distinctive and more accessible to users with low vision—that's more than one in four users worldwide, according to the WHO. "Making sure text is readable on background colors helps make content more accessible, and that affects AA and AAA ratings for digital products," explains Tom.


Black text on white background remains standard for printed media, but UI designers can choose different colors using contrast checkers and plugins created by Figma's design community. Figma's selection colors feature lets UI designers explore different color schemes, then apply consistent colors and contrast across their final designs. Figma's selection colors feature lets UI designers explore different color schemes, then apply consistent colors and contrast across their final designs.


UI designers also use contrast strategically to draw attention to important content or features, he says. "For a critical piece of information—like a warning or deleting your account— you may introduce a higher, more jarring contrast to command the user's attention."


5. Proximity


Savvy designers place UI elements with similar functions close together, in proximity with each other. Designers  align closely related UI elements – take for example streaming services, where related features like play, fast-forward, and rewind buttons are on the same row. But if the quit button is right next to the play button, you may lose your users.