Book summary: Designing with the Mind in Mind

This is my summary of “Designing with the Mind in Mind” by Jeff Johnson, a book about user interface design that explores the reasons why those principles work.


How valuable are UI design guidelines depends on who applies them. They often describe goals, not actions, so they can’t be followed like a recipe. They also often conflict with each other. This book tries to give rationale to make them easier to apply.

Visual content

  • Structure: Gestalt principles (proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, symmetry, figure/ground, common fate), see on p. 11-22. They act together, and sometimes they produce effects we don’t want: review designs with each of these principles in mind to see if they suggest a relationship that shouldn’t be there.

  • Text: we’re wired for language, but not for reading. Typical text-related mistakes: geek-speak, tiny fonts (if the text is hard to read, it probably won’t be read, so you might as well remove it), burying important information in repetition, and using just too much text (use just enough to help most users get to their intended goals).

  • Colour: our vision is optimised to detect contrasts (edges), and our ability to distinguish colours depends on how they are presented (colours are harder to distinguish if they’re pale, in small/thin patches or separated from each other). Guidelines for colour: (1) distinguish by saturation/brightness, not only hue, (2) use distinctive colours (red, green, yellow, blue, black and white), (3) avoid colour pairs that colour-blinds can’t distinguish (tips on p.59-60, including http://www.vischeck.com/), (4) don’t rely on colour alone, and (5) don’t place strong opponent colours next to each other (see p. 62).

  • Peripheral vision: we only have good resolution in the centre of wherever we’re looking. Peripheral vision (1-2 centimetres from peripheral vision) mostly only provides cues for our eye movement (good example of bad error message, based on this, on p. 71). To make an error message visible: (1) put it where users are looking, (2) mark it (often it’s enough placing it next to what it refers to), (3) use an error symbol/icon, and (4) reserve red for errors. Heavy artillery (use with care!): (1) pop-ups, (2) sound (makes users scan the screen for errors; make sure they can hear it!), (3) motion or blinking (but not for more than a quarter- or half-second).

  • Visual hints: use pictures where possible to convey function (quicker to recognise; memorable icons hint at their meaning, are distinguishable from others and consistently mean the same even across applications); thumbnails depict full-sized images effectively if they keep features; use visual cues to let users recognise where they are (distinctive visual style, colours, etc).


Our perception is biased by our experience, current context and goals. Implications: (1) test your design to make sure different users interpret it in the same way; (2) be consistent with position, colours and font for elements that serve the same function; and (3) understand your users’ goals (they can be different, too!) and make sure you support them by making relevant information clearly visible at every stage.


We’re much better at recognising than at remembering (“see and choose” is easier than “recall and type”). Tips: (1) avoid modes, or if you can’t, show the current mode clearly; (2) show search terms when showing search results (they’re easy to forget if we get interrupted for whatever reason); (3) when showing instructions for a multi-step process, make sure the instructions are there while following the steps.

Attention and goals

When people focus their attention on their tools, it is pulled away from the details of the task. Software applications should not call attention to themselves. Short-term memory and attention are very limited, so don’t rely on them. Instead indicate what users have done versus what they have not yet done, and/or allow users to mark or move objects to indicate which ones they have worked on versus the rest.

Support people’s goal-execute-evaluate cycle: provide clear paths, including initial steps, for the goal; software concepts should be focused on the task rather than implementation, for the execution; provide feedback and status information to show users their progress towards their goal, and allow users to back out of tasks that didn’t take them toward their goal, for evaluation.

While pursuing a goal, people only notice things that seem related to it, and take familiar paths whenever possible rather than exploring new ones, esp. when working under deadlines. After they’re done, they often forget cleanup steps: design software so that users don’t need to remember, or at least to remind them.

Misc. tips:

  • Don’t expect users to deduce information, tell them explicitly what they need to know.

  • Don’t make users diagnose system problems. They don’t have the skills.

  • Minimise the number and complexity of settings. People are really bad at optimising combinations of settings.

  • Let people use perception rather than calculation, when possible (some problems, when presented graphically, allow people to achieve their goals with quick perceptual estimates instead of calculations).

  • Make the system familiar (concepts, terminology, graphics), by following industry standards, by making the software work like an older application the user know, or by basing the design on metaphors.

  • Let the computer do the math, don’t make people calculate things the computer can calculate for them.


We learn faster when operation and vocabulary is task-focused, and when risk is low:

  • Task-focused operation: you have to understand the users’ goals in order to reduce the gap between what the user wants and the operations supported by the tool is called “the gulf of execution”. To understand goals: perform a task analysis (checklist on p. 135) and design a task-focused conceptual model (the list of objects/actions analysis the user should know about).  The second should be as simple as possible (ie. less concepts), avoid overlapping concepts, and not have things “just in case”. Only then sketch and design a user interface, based strictly on the task analysis.

  • Task-focused vocabulary: it should be familiar and consistent (“same name, same thing; different name, different thing”), mapped 1:1 to the concepts.

  • Low risk: often people are afraid of being “burned” and don’t learn or explore. People make mistakes, so systems should try to prevent errors where possible, make errors easy to detect by showing users what they have done, and allow users to undo/reverse easily.

Responsive systems

Responsiveness is not the same as performance, it can’t be fixed by having faster machines/software. Principles:

  • Let you know immediately your input was received

  • Provide some indication of how long operations will take

  • Free you to do other things while waiting

  • Manage queued events intelligently

  • Perform housekeeping and low-priority tasks in the background

  • Anticipate your most common requests

When showing progress indicators (always an operation takes longer than a few seconds): show work remaining; total progress, not progress on the current step; start percentages at 1%, not 0% (and display 100% only briefly at the end); show smooth, linear progress, not erratic bursts; use human-scale precision, not computer precision (“about 4 minutes” better than “240 seconds”).

Display important information first. Don’t wait to have all the information to show everything at once.