The Insider’s Guide to Designing User-Centered Digital Products: Match between System and the Real World

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By Maria Victoria De Santiago

March 14, 2023

We are a digital product design company that is dedicated to creating products that function impeccably and offer a seamless and satisfying user experience. To achieve this, we utilize Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics. To learn more about them, click here. Now, let’s dive into Nielsen’s second heuristic: Match between System and the Real World.

Isn’t it neat when you download a new app, and feel like you instinctively “get it”? When you feel like you can freely flow through its features and screens, because you ultimately have shared codes that help you navigate it?

Humans naturally lean towards familiarity. This is why Nielsen’s second heuristic poses that:

Systems should speak the users’ language: this includes wording, imagery and iconography that follows real-world uses and conventions. As a result, information will appear logically and the user will feel integrated, capable and in control.

But… to accomplish this, we must be very familiar with our specific users, since we can never assume that what sounds “good” or “reasonable” or even “obvious” to us as designers will be the same as for our users. Interpretation of the world around us depends on thousands upon thousands of factors, so nothing should be taken for granted.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the language of a digital product. If users don’t understand the terms used on the product, they might feel ignored and insecure. After all, nobody likes feeling like they can’t follow what’s going on! This might prompt them to divert their attention in order to find explanations, or even worse, ditch our product altogether. And in case these reasons weren’t compelling enough, remember that familiar, simpler words perform better for SEO purposes, which helps your product’s distribution and reach. In a nutshell, we’re aiming at wording that can be easily understood without needing external sources.

As we know, digital products need more than language to convey messages. This means that all graphic aspects should also be mindful of this heuristic. Take for instance skeuomorphic design – user interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts in how they look like, or in the interactions the user can have with them. We’ll review some examples of this heuristic below:

Icons that are metaphors from real world are a clear example of this heuristic.
In this example from our work, we find an example of this heuristic: users can understand this chart clearly because they are used to seeing this type of display in their real world, especially in their cars.
In this project related to Information Management, we decided to include a Highlighting functionality as well as the ability to create extracts from articles. This is something that users are familiar with from their studying days, and an intuitive, useful way to process huge amounts of information.

This kind of design relies on our user’s previous experiences and knowledge -their mental model-, both online and offline. In this digital world, it’s safe to say that we won’t be any given user’s first experience with technology, and we should take that as an advantage to help them navigate our interface with no need for training

We’ve discussed the application of Nielsen’s second heuristic on wording and on design. But there is a meta-level on which we should apply this principle: to match the real world, the overall experience we’re giving our users should be similar, and create similar expectations and enjoyment, as the real thing. That’s why popular text processing products include highlighting tools that mimic using a fluorescent marker, and social media based around pictures feels like turning pages in a photo album, or even why digital media platforms showcase films in a way that’s reminiscent of walking down the aisle of a video store. Familiarity with actual experiences help digital products keep the enjoyment of users up.

It goes without saying that all information conveyed to users should be logically defined and accurate regarding its timing. We shouldn’t give our user information on what to do at the end of a task they haven’t even started, or let them know key information at the end of a process, for example.

Making sure our product creates a safe, comfortable space for our users where they feel understood and also understand what is going on can make all the difference in our success. It shows empathy at a human level and differentiates our offering.

Stay tuned for an exploration of Nielsen’s third heuristic: User control and freedom, and discover how to make your product stand out.

At Arionkoder, we help you create seamless products that bring joy to your users. Reach out to us today to discover everything we can accomplish together!