UX Principles at Work

The new reality for work is hard to ignore.

Built environments are places made by people that support human activity and part of everyday experience in our modern world. Physical, digital, or hybrid experiences are part of what’s next. The future may echo the past but is forged in the present.

We have many clients in the commercial design industry, mostly focused on physical products and experiences – buildings, architecture, interior design, furniture, textiles, flooring, lighting, materials, and supply chains. These environments support work, education, healthcare, hospitality, retail, and home life.

Today, many human activities are digital. Products and services are delivered virtually, and the emerging world involves app stores, saas work tools, distance learning, telemedicine, and on-demand entertainment, and gaming. The new digital landscape was already taking over when the global pandemic accelerated this trend. As we begin to comprehend these changes, new paradigms for designing for experiences are becoming more mature. Some interaction designers have been exploring how digital design may need to take cues from urban planning – digital placemaking.

For office work, the promise of the IoT of everything is blurring the line between furniture and technology. The emergence of cloud and edge computing is allowing for a new ecosystem. Technology will be woven into our work environments, not just an additional layer like a phone or laptop computer. The new built environment landscape calls for new paradigms designing experiences.

The discussion of work beyond physical environments is robust. We can learn from new thinking about motives, purpose, and productivity, considering the psychology of work. Slack is a software company, but also a digital work environment provider. Its recent State of Work report highlights critical issues for organizations today, emphasizing how modern work is about people, and how people need to be connected and aligned to their organization’s strategic vision.

Maturing concepts in digital design are a helpful source of input. As we better understand user behavior and experience, the fields of UX and interaction design offer a new foundation for the built environment – both physical and virtual. There are many lists of UX principles which can offer new insights for traditional built environments and help build an emerging design vocabulary – the UX of Work.

Aesthetic Usability Effect: Users often perceive aesthetically pleasing design as design that’s more usable. Many designers and brands often feel this intuitively. While usability and aesthetics aren’t the same, some product companies take full advantage of the opportunity it creates when they get it right.

Doherty Threshold: Productivity soars when technology and its users interact at a pace that ensures that neither has to wait on the other. How long does it take to adjust or reconfigure your environment? What is the speed of thought?

Fitt's Law: The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target. Signage experts know this well. How might this relate to your wayfinding, branding, or messaging? What is the visual sightline of your physical space? How does that priority translate to a digital experience?

Hick's Law: The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. The paradox of choice makes it hard for sellers and buyers to meet in the middle and makes it hard to know where to focus in a complex work environment. Narrowing choice means making strategic decisions.

Jakob's Law: Online, users spend most of their time on websites other than yours, so they prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. Your aim to create unique environments can make user experiences more difficult. Does each product work differently? Does environment novelty inhibit productivity? Newness can fight usability.

Law of Common Region: Elements tend to be perceived into groups if they are sharing an area with a clearly defined boundary. How are you creating boundaries in your work environment? Are the groupings meaningful? Where is the separation or overlap?

Law of Pragnanz: People will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images as the simplest form possible because it is the interpretation that requires the least cognitive effort from the user. Is your environment complex or ambiguous, and if so how is it being interpreted? Does your environment help convey or obfuscate information? How is work supported through effective communication?

Law of Proximity: Objects that are near, or proximate to each other, tend to be grouped together. Are work teams nearby by default or convenience, or a deliberate choice? Are like features in close proximity to each other? Is the appropriate distance between unrelated spaces or functions?

Law of Simplicity: The human eye tends to perceive similar elements in a design as a complete picture, shape, or group, even if those elements are separated. Which parts go together? What should stand out? What design vocabulary is established by products, spaces, and features?

Law of Uniform Connectedness: Elements that are visually connected are perceived as more related than elements with no connection. Which parts deserve or require a visual connection? How will you create contrast?

Miller's Law: The average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory. How many things are on your to-do list? Project list? How many people are on your work team? How many meetings do you have today? How many actionable emails are in your inbox?

Occam's Razor: Among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. This may work much of the time, but will it yield the most innovative results? What hypotheses shape your work environment? Which historical patterns should be disrupted?

Pareto Principle: For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. How is this affecting your product portfolio? Space allocation? Project priorities? Product features? Meetings and tactics?

Parkinson's Law: Any task will inflate until all of the available time is spent. What is the effect of having default hour blocks for calendar entries? Fixed meeting room sizes? Standard project templates? Standard project teams? 40-hour weeks? Quarterly goals?

Peak-End Rule: People judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, rather than the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. In addition, people remember bad experiences over good ones. Given this reality, how are you managing your customer experience? Employee experience? Work process experience? How might this affect project post-evaluation discussion? Institution memory?

Postel's Law: Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send. That is, be robust in seeking input, but be fastidious with your outputs. Is your work environment designed to support a lot of new information? How do you seek new insights? How does your process support careful work products? How do you measure outputs?

Serial Position Effect: Users have a propensity to best remember the first and last items in a series. How are you organizing your space, meetings, and work? Are you mindful of the impact of sequence? What happens in the middle? How do you monitor what is remembered vs what is important?

Tesler's Law: For any system, there is a certain amount of complexity which cannot be reduced. Where is the complexity in your work, or your customer’s experience? What is really needed, and what is wasteful? How are you absorbing necessary complexity from internal partners and customers?

Von Restorff Effect: When multiple similar objects are present, the one that differs from the rest is most likely to be remembered. How are you ensuring that important work stands out? How is your work environment reflective of your priorities? How does the product direct the user to make smart choices?

Zeigarnik Effect: People remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. How do you show progress? How are you highlighting achievement?

These concepts may seem esoteric to some and groundbreaking to others. We know that built environment innovators will seek new ideas as they explore the new UX of Work.


This article is part of “The UX of Work” series by Peopledesign, where we explore work, built environments, and user experience. For more information, go to peopledesign.com/ux-of-work.

Next article: Unbundling Education