Have there been academic attempts to produce a collection / framework / taxonomy of generally applicable HIGs (Human-Interface Guidelines)?

Each major platform tends to have their own, and while they must include a level (significant level even, perhaps) of redundancy, they naturally conform to and define platform specific conventions and guidelines as well.

I've been doing literature research in order to find out if there exists some kind of a framework for general HIGs, but so far I have not come across such a guide.

I'm currently pursuing my bachelor's thesis, and one possible way for proceeding it would be to start collecting a small sample of universally applicable set of HIGs and possibly continue that work in my master's thesis.

My current approach would be to map out small sample of universally applicable HIGs with (more or less) sound scientific base and compare the existing platform specific HIGs with that basis. My selected HIG attributes are at the time of writing this: minimum contrast (as defined in WCAG 2.0 which e.g. Apple follows), the minimum physical size of a touchable UI element and most intuitive touch-based gestures.

If someone has good research references at hand, I would be most grateful!


Since my previous comment and initial question, my work has somewhat expanded. While this was expected to some extent on my behalf, I'm still hoping that my work will stay concrete enough to be of practical value (I believe it is hugely valuable for me, since I've gained a pretty nice overview of UX doing this). The scope of my work has expanded to be more like a process description, rather than the more concrete guidelines I originally was after.

Thanks to the awesome comments here, I have been digging into a wide variety of literature.

Where am I going now?

The outline of my thesis currently consists of a literature review and a proposed framework for a general design process.

As a motivation for universal HIGs I will state that universal human-interfaces already exist. For the demonstration device I give you the humble map. It has been an abstract presentation of our surroundings for millenia. For another example I'd like to bring up musical notes, which is a truly universally applied interface for musicians. The Grid nicely concretizes my primary question: how are these guys doing it?

Mainly based on process definitions by Karen Holtzblatt and Jesse James Garrett and a one that I came across at UXmatters the proposed design process framework would be as follows:

  1. Content Design
  2. Interaction Design
  3. Visual Design
  4. Implementation

The main emphasis will be on the Visual Design to keep my thesis' scope focused enough. The Visual Design/Interaction Design sections are probably the closest to the original scope of the question.

  • 3
    How far back are you willing to go to define the HIGs? For example, do you prefer to start with the research conducted at Xerox Parc in the 1970s and see if their general guidelines/thoughts/ideas are still applicable to today's devices?
    – Andy
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:17
  • 1
    I'd argue that there are no universal guidelines other than what stems from cognitive/perception science, and that execution and guidelines reflect an intersection of those sciences, a specific technology, and culture. As an exercise, try to find existing guidelines that would apply to a super-intelligent voice UI - I don't think there are many. So I think you need to constrain the concept of "universal" to a specific technology, e.g. visual interfaces, or visual interfaces with pointers.
    – obelia
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 18:04
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    The US Department of Defense has produced MIL-STD-1472 that is supposed to be independent of any platform. Another document worth reviewing (although it is quite old) is Boff & Lincoln Engineering Data Compendium Human Perception and Performance. Search for Boff Lincoln here and you will find links to pdfs for each volume. I would link directly to them but the documents are >100MB each. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 17:33
  • 1
    @SamiSurakka: I do not know of one specific resource that contains a collection of Xerox Parc guidelines, but I can point you towards literature about the individuals involved. I would begin by researching papers and books written by the individuals mentioned in the first two chapters of Designing Interactions (designinginteractions.com/chapters) - Doug Engelbart, Stu Card, Tim Mott, Larry Tesler, Bill Atkinson, Paul Bradley, Bill Verplank, Cordell Ratzlaff, and probably many more.
    – Andy
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 20:16
  • 2
    Maybe this will help: interaction-design.org/literature You can find "The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction" and "The Glossary of Human-Computer Interaction" there.
    – user77045
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 12:18

2 Answers 2


Yes, there are two universally accepted academic UI guidelines:

Nielsen usability guidelines and Shneidermann's

Also, a you can use the Hicks law and Fitts law.

However, you said the "minimum physical size of a touchable UI element" - this is actually wrong because according to the Fitts law the bigger the object the faster a person can reach it. Therefore the bigger the size of the UI element the easier it will be for the users to touch it. I hope I get you right.

You should also note that WCAG is provides guidelines for accessability. And accessibility means making websites that can be used even by people with visual, physical and cognitive impariments. Or simply put: optimizing the web for disabled people (10% of the population) that cannot browse it normally.

  • 1
    Thanks. These are essential knowledge for any person studying usability or UX. Originally I was probably more or less searching for more conrete guidelines that would lead to design that conforms to the heuristics by e.g. Nielsen. I've updated my question in order to show my findings thus far and report for the shift in my research's focus. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 15:53
  • Few remarks, now that I've got more time reading into your answer. "this is actually wrong because according to the Fitts law ... the bigger the size of the UI element the easier it will be for the users to touch it." Not quite. While the Fitts Law states that bigger objects are better hit in the UI, the real question here is what is the optimal size, i.e minimum size while remaining usable for a touchable UI element. The screen real estate is a big thing :). "Bigger is better" is misleading in another sense too: if you make a button too big it will actually stop resembling a button. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 20:23
  • Also, this article suggests there exists a threshold after which making elements bigger will not have any significant impact. What comes to the WCAG 2.0, that was merely a source used to point out the minimum contrast ratio calculation (using luminance of colors). Sorry for any confusions in the original question. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 20:24
  • I'm glad you read about Fitts law. You're right making the button really big will make it easy to click, but the other elements of the page will have less space and will be de-emphasized. You always have to think about all elements of the page and decide which are important for the primary task, and then you emphasize on them (make elements easily visible) while all other elements which are not that important you make them a little less visible so they do not attract that much attention. Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 8:12

My understanding is that when you say “user interface guidelines” those are platform-specific because user interfaces are platform-specific. When you say “human interface guidelines,” to me, that suggests the Apple books about the Macintosh.

However, when you say “usability” that is universal. It covers general principles that make any computing platform easier or faster or more productive to use. And other factors.

The Neilson Group might be a good reference for you.

Usability 101: Introduction to Usability

  • Thanks for the suggestion. NNgroup has been a good resource for me already, but as I stated in my question's comments earlier, I'm approaching the problem at hand from User Experience's perspective, which usability is a part of. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 15:47

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