Using Design Principles

There are many theories on what constitutes "good design." Most of these theories incorporate five basic principles, balance, alignment, grouping, consistency, and contrast. Within these principals fall design elements which include fonts, white space, visual aids, colors, headings, body text, as well as bullet and numbering systems. Use of these design theories and elements help readers to easily move through the text and identify key topics. Additionally, there are design principles that are specific for help system designs (listed below).


The page layout reflects its balance . Creating balance on a page helps the reader move through the text. To create balance, use graphics, text, and other visual elements to balance the top of the page to the bottom and the left side of the page to the right. You can create balance by using a "weight" system, which defines how a reader sees the page and where their eyes are first drawn.

Basic weight guidelines:
  • Items on the right side of the screen weigh more and items on the left side of the screen weigh less.
  • Items on the top of the screen weigh more, and items on the bottom weigh less.
  • Large items weigh more than small items.
  • Pictures weigh more than text.
  • Color adds more weight than black and white items.
  • Irregular shapes weigh more than shapes with regular outlines.
  • Borders add weight.
  • Motion weighs more than static items.

Use of a weight system will make a help system more visually appealing to the readers.


Alignment helps readers to identify and understand topic hierarchy. Vertical alignment creates different levels of information and horizontal alignment helps connect the topics into units.


Dr. George A. Miller, a cognitive psychologist, wrote that people only retain about seven items in their short-term memory at any given time. Grouping like items allows the reader to retain the group of information as one memory item. Using headers, borders, and other visual elements in a consistent manner helps readers to follow and process the chucks of information.


When planning the design of your online help system, consistency is an important factor. A document or system that uses consistent grouping, fonts, colors, and other design elements allows the reader to move from item to item in an understandable manner. Inconsistency between design elements can cause confusion and the reader does not know what to expect.


Contrast can make or break a design. Contrast helps readers to see and process the information. For example, placing black text on a grey background provides very little contrast, making the text hard to read.

You can create contrast using colors and white space. The use of colors should be done carefully as poor color matching is not only visually unappealing, but in some cases using the wrong colors can make your document unreadable. Approximately 14.5% of the population are color deficient. This part of your audience will see colors differently, and some colors they may not see at all.

Color tools:

Help System Specific Design Principles

Each principle included in the principles list was obtained through the investigation of prior research in the area of on-line help.
  1. Principle: The help system should be unobtrusive (i.e. should not hinder the user’s progress).
  2. Principle: The help system should be procedural (i.e. describe how to achieve a task step-by-step).
  3. Principle: Help should have the ability to give a succinct definition of any term.
  4. Principle: The system should offer different types of help depending on the query.
  5. Principle: Users should not need help to get help.
  6. Principle: Help should have a defined structure, with each section clearly labeled.
  7. Principle: Help should enable the user to find out why their action caused a certain reaction from the system.
  8. Principle: Help should be context sensitive (i.e. offer help based on the current task).
  9. Principle: Help should have an interface which is aesthetically pleasing, with easy data entry.
  10. Principle: Help should contain numerous examples with pictures and animation if possible.
  11. Principle: Help should speak the user’s language (i.e. be free of jargon).
  12. Principle: Help should have the ability to act as an introduction to the system.
  13. Principle: Help should offer a topic section, an index and tutorials.
  14. Principle: Help should enable the user to know where they are at any time, and how they may get to where they want to go (i.e. map the system).
  15. Principle: Help should be presented in a way that is easy to understand.
  16. Principle: Help should be accurate, complete, and consistent.
  17. Principle: Help should NOT display irrelevant information.
  18. Principle: Help should NOT require the user to scroll pages to find the information they need.
  19. Principle: Cross-referencing should NOT be over used so as not to confuse the user.
  20. Principle: Help should minimize the cognitive load on the user.
  21. Principle: Data display in help should be consistent.
  22. Principle: The user should have as much control over the help system as possible.
  23. Principle: Help should be specific.


Weber, Jean Hollis. Is the Help Helpful?. Whitefish Bay: Hentzenwerke, 2004. Print

Johnson-Sheehan, Richard. Technical Communication Today. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Locker, Kitty O., and Donna S. Kienzler. Business and Administrative Communication. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2013. Print

Miller, George A. "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information." Psychological Review 63 (1956): 81-97. Print

Int. J. Human-Computer Studies (2002) 56, 539–567 doi:10.1006/ijhc.1009. Web. Oct 16 2012


Original Author: Tammy Fitzpatrick
Contributors: Linda Page, Larita Clow
Editors: Inez Funchess