What are the top UX theories to teach to beginners in the field?

What are the basics no designer could go without knowing?

For example: fitts law, hicks law, principles of gestalt, concept of affordance.

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    I recommend that this be re-opened. I think it led to some useful answers. The rationale for closing predicted that "this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion" - yet I don't think any of those have come to pass. Instead, I see many helpful suggestions.
    – D.W.
    Jul 15, 2012 at 23:41

6 Answers 6


Underlying all the principles of design and UX tools and techniques is understanding users - the psychology of how people think and see - how they make decisions, what motivates them, what engages them, how memories are strengthened, how fallible we are and how mistakes are made.

Beginners like to know how something matters to them, so introducing topics that relate to how they can see, test and understand their own behaviour is a great way to gently ease them in.

Once they understand a bit about how the brain is wired and that much of people's behaviour is subconscious, then you can use that as a foundation for the reasoning behind all the other principles that appeal to that.

So for example, teaching people about desire lines - and why paths are worn in the grass to cut off a corner of two paths is a real world example that beginners can see and understand, but this can lead on to topics like paths of least resistance, barriers to progress, Ockhams Razor (and similar laws from Einstein, Newton and Aristotle), white space and clutter, figure and ground, signal to noise ratios, gestalt principles and affordance - all without getting too entrenched.


User testing.

Even if an initial design is poor, its worst aspects can be ameliorated so long as the designer understands the value of usability testing. If they can write good tasks that don't lead the user, and understand the kinds of issues they should be looking for, they will be equipped to create a solid application. Maybe nothing amazing, but certainly a lot better than otherwise.

Once the basics of testing are understood, I'd teach the essentials of user-centred design. Thinking from the user's perspectives and avoiding choices that only make sense to those familiar with the product. Some pointers on copywriting and how to research design patterns.


I think getting people to think about affordances is one of the relatively easy ways to get a person's mind to wrap around the idea of designing things for use, so it's where I often start when I give a high-level overview of UX.

I think Don Norman gives people a really terrific understanding of what affordances are and how to understand them in this video he produced in 1994, and naturally his book Designing Everyday Things gives a really terrific layman's explanation of this too.


(I would start by teaching spelling for beginners =P). Then I would refocus by suggesting some reading materials. For my emphasis on the IA side of things, I highly recommend the teachings of Edward Tufte on how to best present information. Tufte's website I would also probably start a bit more abstract on the holistic approach to what makes UX-focus so important and the general process of UX design, than any single principle or theory in isolation.


I dont think we should really focus on the theory if we want to teach a beginner. I will focus more on WHOM TO DESIGN FOR. Most people have the tendency to design for themselves. We need to bring them out of this model and make them understand why a USER is important. What is the advantages of designing for user and how to relate to them.

This is a must lesson because even when they have all the theories in their kitty bag... they might use these theories for their preference and not the users.

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    The technique that I'd teach for this is persona-writing. I think the task of thinking of the gamut of your user base using real names and identifiable attributes makes it easier to remember the user(s) throughout the design and development process. It also gets the client/stakeholders out of "solutions" mode and into "problems"/"needs" mode.
    – Kit Grose
    Jul 13, 2012 at 6:37

There's a growing library of books on the subject, some of them worthwhile. Here's the short list:

  • Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites by Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville (a bit dated now, but still useful)
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
  • Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity by Jakob Nielsen
  • Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug
  • Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte
  • Search Patterns by Peter Morville
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

The last one isn't really about UX, but Stephenson's novel is an object lesson in how richly imagined metaphors can sometimes become reality.

If the above list were part of the curriculum for UX 101, probably on the first day of class I'd bring in a collection of tools -- some familiar, some obscure -- and ask the students: A. What are these things for?, B. How would you use them? and C. How could these tools be made better?

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