Designing for a Sense of Mastery –

What are your usability goals when you’re designing new UI? One of the things I aspire to is creating a sense of mastery for users.

Mastery is a little hard to define, but I like to think of it as that comfortable feeling you get when you kind of know what’s going on. You’re the expert, or close enough. You know what’s going to happen. You know what to expect.

To romanticize it a bit, it’s the feeling of getting into your favorite coffee shop after a few months in a different city. It just sort of … fits.

The opposite of mastery is confusion or even bewilderment. It’s like stepping onto a subway platform in an unfamiliar town: where do I go? Is this going uptown? Why isn’t the train coming? Why is there no one waiting on this side? It’s nerve-wracking and stressful. You’re afraid of making a mistake or of missing out.

Microsoft’s Notepad

The same principle applies to product design as well. It’s the difference between opening Notepad and opening Microsoft Word. Notepad is so simple that you get the lay of the land quickly. It only has maybe a dozen features. There aren’t any unlabeled icons or buttons. You just get it. Well, they had it easy: Notepad doesn’t really do too much, but it still serves as a good example.

Creating a sense of mastery can be tricky. It’s not just about exposing common features and hiding the advanced stuff. I’ve seen some mobile apps (including some of Apple’s built-ins) that try so hard to be minimal and simple, that they render themselves unintuitive and cryptic.

Here are some tips about helping users feel masterful as quickly as possible:

  1. Straightforward is better than clever. I love to be creative and invent new UX paradigms, but remember: if it feels familiar your users will feel safe.
  2. Stick to commonly-used terms and icons. Users will know what to expect when they tap them. If you’re delivering on multiple platforms, try to stick to the usual way of doing things on each platform.
  3. Get to the action right away. Tours and tutorials may seem like a good idea but in reality they rarely work well. A good app explains itself and doesn’t need a tour. I don’t need a tour when I drive an unfamiliar car, because all cars sort of work the same way.
  4. Plan for the “empty state”: what does your user see when they open your app and there’s nothing there yet (e.g. zero pictures)? It’s daunting to see an empty app. You can use the blank space to provide helpful UI for a user who’s starting out (e.g. “Add your first picture”).
  5. Make the most common flows the most accessible. Adding a big “New Appointment” button might seem excessive for a calendar app, but new users will find it useful: they are going to be looking for just those words when using your app for the first time.

If your users feel masterful, they’ll feel comfortable exploring your product, using it more and eventually recommending it to their friends.

Next time you design UI, think about how it will make your users feel: confused or confident and masterful.

Sign up for our weekly UX newsletter
A weekly collection of UX-related links (like this one), brought to you by your friends at

Author: Gilad Avidan

Collect by: