Don’t try to learn everything. Choose your desired skills and branch out from there.

In the quest of becoming a good UI designer, you can come a long way by reading books, attending conferences, formally educating yourself, trying out tutorials, or just experimenting on your own. However, if you want to go into hyper-speed in bettering your UI design skills, the best way to learn is to work with other designers. Find them at your workplace, hire them, or spend time online in the User Experience- or Interaction-Designer world.

Quick tips

  • Design every day. There is nothing that improves design skills as designing. So design, every day. Design at work. Go home and find little design problems in your everyday life and solve them. Have fun with it and experiment. Trial and error is a great way to learn.
  • Collect good design. I found that collecting screenshots for UI-Patterns.com made me a better designer. It gave me an eye for what good design is and what it looks and feels like. Always be on the hunt for spotting clever details and great design, and you will start using them yourself.
  • Test, test, test. Heuristics will take you far, but the only true way you will learn what works and what doesn’t is through testing. Test on real people, either by conducting usability studies (tests, focus groups, etc.) or by A/B testing.
  • Iterate in increments. Deliver value in increments in an iterative fashion. Having an agile process ensures you will build the right product rather than doing it right from the beginning.

For learning on your own, I have collected a list of various resources that will help you on your way to becoming a good designer. On purpose, I have restrained from tech-books and kept it to evergreens. However, before you start, choose your specialty: don’t try to learn everything. Choose your desired skills and branch out from there.

This article was first published on December 3rd, 2009, but has continuously been updated to reflect the current state of the web. The last update was June 11th, 2015.

Fundamental design concepts

Learn the basic principles: The gestalt laws, Fitt’s law, about affordance, feedback, etc. The book Universal Principles of Design gives a great introduction to these and much more (100 principles total).

Then, go read Steve Krugs straight-forward and simple Don’t Make Me Think, which will give you a good sense of how your most basic thought processes on how to approach design should be.

When you got the basics down, continue to the more emotional books by Donald Norman.

Basic principles

First learn basic principles such as the gestalt laws, Fitt’s law, Affordance, Feedback.

The book Universal Principles of Design gives a great introduction to these

Sketching

Sketching is great for trying out ideas fast and receive rapid feedback.

Sketching is great for trying out ideas fast and receive rapid feedback. It provides a great tool for discussing ideas and exploring different possibilities. Paper prototyping is fast, cheap, and effective: much faster than coding a digital prototype.

Before you buy any books on the subject, check out these UI-pattern.com blog posts on the subject: Drawing corners and boxes, Drop Shadow, Use a thick pen, Get your arm off the paper, Constrain yourself.

2 books to read on paper prototyping

Usability testing

The most common approach is the Thinking aloud approach.

Discount testing is cheap and easy. The most common approach is the Thinking aloud approach. It will help you quickly test if other people than yourself understand your abstractions. Sometimes it is enough to just grab anybody you can find, give them some tasks to do, and see how well they perform. This will rid most obvious errors that you did not see yourself.

The more advanced lab-based user testing is a science in itself. It will help you once you have removed the obvious errors from your design and is ready to move into the more psychological and engaging factors of usability.

Discount testing

Consider opting for Guerilla user testing instead of expensive and “correct” usability-lab user testing

User research

One thing is to test whether what you have designed actually works – another thing is getting to the point where you have something to test.

User research is about understanding and engaging in your users. Understanding in what scenarios/situations your users interact with your product, how they interact with your product, and what motivates them to do so.

User research is most often formalized in personas and scenarios, and use-cases – or if you prefer agile methodologies; user stories.

Personas

Alan Cooper invented the Persona concept. His book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, is a great introduction to the concept. The The Persona Lifecycle is a great extension, if you really want to dwell into the concept.

4 books on conducting good user research


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper (On personas)

The Persona Lifecycle by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin

About Face by Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann

Observing the User Experience by Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky, and Andrea Moed

Information architecture

Information architecture is about designing how your design works and how its parts play together. The information architect creates structure and principles to make something work in a clear and consistent way.

There are a handful of books that tackle the very discipline of designing a good information architecture. The ones listed below are the best I’ve come across. They are all old-school and lengthy and is generally only recommended if you really want to get to the bottom of what Information Architecture is about. I have found much more value in reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. However, if you do want to dwell into Information Architecture as a subject, these are the best text-books there are.

3 books on Information Architecture

Interaction design

Interaction design is about designing interactions. It’s about designing the connection between your software interface and how it is to be used by the user.

Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions gives a great insight into the history of Interaction Design and is worth a read for anybody. Designing Interfaces by Jeniffer Tidwell is the classic UI design pattern book, which provides a great reference if you can’t do with UI-Patterns.com.

Books on Interaction Design


Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge

About Face by Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann

Designing Interfaces by Jenifer Tidwell

Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction by Sharp, Rogers, and Preece

Process

Process is a fundamental part of design. Without proper attention to process, you will find yourself spending more hours in a matter of magnitude than you could have. The most common comparison is the horrendous and scary waterfall model against more agile alternatives. The right choice of process depend on the context. The major alternatives are:

  • Agile development, which focuses on a processes that embraces both incremental and iterative development. The thoughts behind agile development practices are largely inspired by the Lean manufacturing principles made popular by Toyota. Popular agile methodologies are eXtreme programming and Scrum.
  • Kanban is also inspired by Lean manufacturing and is in one form a variety (or subset) of agile development. Where agile development focus on the full development cycle, empowerment, and self-management, Kanban is a tool for organizing tasks.
  • Lean Startup is another offspring from the principles behind Lean manufacturing. The Lean Startup framework tries to solve the problem of finding out what users want and what the right thing to build is by proving or disproving a set of hypothesises through a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank is another classic and proceeds the Lean Startup.
  • CMM & CMMI. The Capability Maturity Model (CMM) and the Improved one (CMMI) is a development methodology developed by the United States Defense program to ensure the quality of mission critical software. It relies heavily on statistics and analyzes past behavior to improve what’s coming. It’s great for a non-explorative world, but wouldn’t fit for most web development.

4 best books on software development processes


The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Extreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck

Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Get Agile by Jongerius et. al.

UI pattern libraries

UI pattern libraries showcase recurring solutions that solve common problems. They are a great way to study how others have solved the same problems that you are dealing with yourself – and in a way that has become a standard.

Websites

Web design weblogs

There are many out there with great content that will help you learn about both user experience, interaction, business concepts in web design, graphical design, and more. The following list is a very selection of all the great websites out there:

Websites

Conferences

There are many out there. Here’s a few:

Conferences to attend

Watch conferences online

Come back for updates

This article was first published on December 3rd, 2009, but has continuously been updated to reflect the current state of the web. The last update was August 4th, 2015.

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Anders Toxboe Author

As the head of Digital Development at DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) in Copenhagen, Denmark, Anders Toxboe builds awesome websites with his teams. He also founded UI-Patterns.com and a series of other projects. Follow Anders at @uipatternscom.

29 comments

  • 313e1c387bcd40abd8071f445ee8b0af

    Jason Robb on Dec 04, 2009

    For a post titled “How to get better at UI design” I would expect some stressing of design criticism. Education is the road, but criticism drives improvement. You can only go so far as your education will allow you. If you’re well read, you can travel far. But without criticism, you’re still lacking the practical experience to get better at UI design.

    But you’ve done an excellent job of covering the foundation of becoming better at design. Well done. Should have titled it “UI design education” getting better (as in, producing better designs) requires critique and experience.

    Thanks for sharing! =)

    Jason R.

  • 2516c5faea230297ff3732e483b9218b

    Anders Toxboe on Dec 04, 2009

    @Jason Robb I totally agree about the criticism part. It’s a good point.

    That is why I start out the article saying that the number one thing that will help you learn is to work with other people. Both because you can learn from their skills, but also because you have that daily interaction and feedback about the work you produce (criticism is one of the forms of feedbacks you’ll receive).

  • 10191ca11801bd79be365ad4f5a606e8

    Pete from pumppi on Dec 17, 2009

    Hi Anders!

    Thanks for your great article!

    I am doing my final thesis on polytechnic and this site has been good resource for my thesis, as toxboe.net was good resource for tricks back in the days =)

    Thanks

    -Pete

  • 3d640633ef9a604ab88f78696d84ef9c

    Magga Dora on Jan 11, 2010

    Last but not least tip to include: There is nothing that improves design skills as designing. So design, every day. :)

    Design at work. Go home and find little design problems in your everyday life and solve them. Have fun with it and experiment.

  • 90f1a5946b1cd12dae676eca58f166be

    Himanshu Mody on Jan 12, 2010

    I think paper prototyping is thing of past with tools like Balsamiq. You can create mock-ups far quickly and get going with next steps. Although the principles remain the same , one need not literally use paper.

    You have not mentioned anything about technology, I have experienced similar thoughts from Sr.Usability experts that it is not important which technology one is going to use to deliver the product.

    Few years ago it might have been right thing to do , but now with endless possibilities with latest tools , existing practitioners need to come out of this constraint based approach to UI.
    Can I know your views on this ?

  • 2516c5faea230297ff3732e483b9218b

    Anders Toxboe on Feb 15, 2010

    @Himanshu Mody:

    I do not believe that there is anything that can replace paper prototyping. I at least have not found any software program that can let me sketch and design as fast as I can with a pen and paper. The other good thing about paper is that I can hang it on the wall and receive feedback from co-workers as they walk by. I can explain a design concept as I draw it – this is so much harder when you all have to look at a screen.

    Technology is for me irrelevant in this case. Design on this abstract level does not have much to do with whether you choose .net or rails as a platform to build your software.

  • 7b9aa313f46c867cb949caf2ee9a39f5

    SMiGL on Mar 02, 2010

    Helpful tips. Thanks

  • 6e139bf7317301363b120f190a019cd0

    TheAL on Mar 04, 2010

    Lotta books to read. I’mma have to add these to the “semi-distant future list” unfortunately. A human can only read so much at a time. And I’m neck-deep in Drupal, HTML5 and CSS3 books right now. Some PHP and MySQL too. Plus online tutorials and trying to learn After Effects and Cinema 4D. I’m, well, booked. LMAO

  • 85611d8af2031634c07b155133ea509e

    Tidy Design on Mar 04, 2010

    I find that when you work 24/7 on a computer it is very relaxing putting pen to paper… As much as I love computers, the web, CSS etc I find sketching ideas play a massive part in web design! Nice read guys! :D

  • A3b2be562e93571366b1d3f75016c586

    Thomas Craig Consulting on Mar 04, 2010

    I think it takes a lot of trial and error, along with feedback both positive and negative to find the perfect balance in UI design.

  • Deebbf47ddf4c4c7f6bd4f6e3a4dea45

    Troy on Mar 05, 2010

    I highly recommend Indi Young’s Mental Modeling (Rosenfeld) to understand and, yes, model user desires and behavior. Very clear and hands-on. Rosenfeld’s other UX books are also fantastic…check them out at rosenfeldmedia.com.

  • 9a3df18359d69003981f4f5634a0eb41

    UI Design on Mar 10, 2010

    that’s really a fantastic post ! added to my favourite blogs list.. I have been reading your blog last couple of weeks and enjoy every bit. Thanks.

  • B7422078f5ab7c9eb1d9a479eb38590c

    Tom Zahler on Jun 16, 2010

    Personally I feel that my skills as a UI designer benefited most from performing usability tests and redesigning applications many, many times.

    I’d also recommend working together with senior user experience engineers, who are able to direct your efforts in the right direction.

    And test and redesign and test and redesign, … :)

  • 2eded187c8afa9bb8f26572e9de143bb

    aj1s on Jul 02, 2010

    It would be great if you could link back to us as well to let people know about this new website :-)

  • 8ebf2cf346f6381f651273c6aeb4c88d

    Derek on Jul 24, 2010

    I agree with Tom Zahler. Test, retest, test again, have someone else test, beta-test, then test again. Release, then incorporate feedback…it’s never done.

  • 12e66d7d50bdfc20d541dd991fc060c3

    Cozzy from Chillidogdesign on Oct 01, 2010

    Great post with some great resources. You have missed out web designer wall which has always been one of my favourites! That said i have plenty of online reading to catch up on now thanks to you. great Job!

  • C482b214f901ceab0f4aa8d6a7574cc0

    Fabian on Nov 23, 2010

    Now that’s what I call a comprehensive overview. Glad you took the time to write that post. I really appreciate your tips!

  • C728a7a136dfd02dc3748de04c4096e8

    Julie on Dec 01, 2010

    I often sketch my web UI’s before putting them on the old laptop. That is a great tip!

  • 7aeed9bd1bf0e0943e5c57ab0e087d27

    Gaurav M on Dec 03, 2010

    It just never stops! GOSH :D

    Thanks for the lovely share :-)

  • 452528b3ac08a5a704af32718d43f61a

    Sergey Andreyev on Dec 03, 2010

    Hi!
    This is all about enforcing your design on all the users. Are you sure that your vision is the best for everyone? What about switching the rules and really giving users the full control of applications? Look at www.sourceforge.net into the project MoveableGraphics (name of project is case-sensitive!)
    There are some alternates to what is considered up till now an axiom.
    Regards,
    Sergey Andreyev

  • 03966e5b8fd46188ecec29c86ad8d06d

    Erhy on Dec 03, 2010

    I’m looking for rule based interaction programming for UI.
    Has anybody experience with?
    Erhy

  • 03966e5b8fd46188ecec29c86ad8d06d

    Erhy on Dec 03, 2010

    Has anybody experience in rule based interaction programming for UI.

  • Ccf916533402b27d90e1f2daf5233b79

    Robet on Dec 07, 2010

    this UI of your blog is nice, clean, and fashion!

  • 8f45f6ab12768a2b806ddbc8c4f1a011

    Dennis van der Heijden on Dec 07, 2010

    WOW you have no idea how much you helped me. I did not know these sources and a new world just opened for me. Our new Reedge UI for February 2011 will have a lot of these best practices!

  • 2bd9cde5cced5c66d7150c0f1d1a699a

    into_the_wild on Dec 12, 2010

    This just gives a broadview of a varity of UI topics, but thanks

  • A425f9661eb40038ca97d0c886c45905

    gift pakistan on Jan 11, 2011

    Well, If you’re well read, you can travel far. But without criticism, you’re still lacking the practical experience to get better at UI design.

  • 5abc933aba91834f16dffa7c48aceebc

    local seo on Feb 18, 2011

    Personally I feel that my skills as a UI designer benefited most from performing usability tests and redesigning applications many, many times.

  • C383d163e30c55c82d53a505b3a254ca

    Julie on Mar 19, 2011

    I am currently reading Paper prototyping by Carolyn Snyder. It explains the procedures in a step-by-step way. There is no doubt, this books is too good.

  • 5e664490bde63b2fc4381526704ccddc

    Snoring Solution on Mar 23, 2011

    I think paper prototyping is thing of past with tools like Balsamiq. You can create mock-ups far quickly and get going with next steps.

Comments have been closed