7 First Principles Thinking Exercises For UX Designers

Jack O'Donoghue Avatar



Design Thinking is an incredible tool for identifying and solving complex human problems.

But First Principles Thinking is an approach to logical reasoning that will pay dividends in all areas of life.

Especially in solving complex technical problems, where a systematic analysis is really the only way to find a solution.

The designer who’s mastered both, will have a massive advantage in producing thoughtful, logical design solutions that meet customer needs in a way that others can only guess at.

Jack O’Donoghue (2 x Bestselling UX Course Creator)
UX Strategy Blueprint
Design Thinking Made Simple

First principles thinking is a foundational approach to problem-solving.

It involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic components and then reassembling them from the ground up.

It’s about questioning every assumption and getting to the core of a problem.

Here are seven thought-provoking exercises to sharpen your first principles thinking in UX design.

1. Reimagining Everyday Products

Choose everyday objects (like a coffee cup or a chair) and redesign them as if for a digital interface.

Question every aspect of the product from it’s purpose, physical appearance, it’s materials etc. Try to understand why it is the way it is and what fundamental elements must stay the same in order for it to continue solving the problem it solves. Then try to redesign it for digital.

For instance, take a traditional alarm clock. Its primary purpose is to alert someone at a specific time. Physically, it consists of a display, buttons for setting time, and often a snooze function. In translating this to digital, a UX designer might focus on the core function of time alerting. The digital version could incorporate customizable alarms, integration with other apps for a more holistic approach to time management, and an interface that changes based on the time of day or user preferences. This approach ensures that the digital product retains the fundamental qualities of the alarm clock while enhancing user experience with new, digitally-native features.

This challenges you to apply physical world principles to digital designs, fostering a deeper understanding of user interactions beyond the screen.

2. Constraint-Based Challenges

Impose unusual constraints on a standard UX task. For example, design a checkout process with no text or a homepage with only three elements. Such constraints force you to rethink design norms and focus on the bare essentials that drive user experience.

3. Historical Analysis

Look at the evolution of a famous digital product. How did early versions cater to user needs, and how has this evolved? Understanding the first principles that guided initial designs can offer insights into how and why current UX strategies work.

4. Reverse Engineering User Interfaces

Take a popular app and deconstruct its user interface (UI) down to the basics. Why is the ‘like’ button where it is? What prompts the color scheme? Scrutinize each element and its placement, questioning the fundamental reasons behind these choices. This reverse-engineering exercise will reveal the core principles that guide effective UI design.

5. The ‘5 Whys’ of User Needs

In this exercise, pick a common feature of a UX design and ask “why” five times to delve deeper into its purpose. For instance, why do users need a search bar? Each answer leads to a deeper understanding of user needs, stripping away assumptions and revealing the first principles of user-centric design.

6. Cross-Industry Application

Take a principle from an entirely different field (like architecture or music) and apply it to a UX design problem. This encourages out-of-the-box thinking and opens up new avenues for innovative solutions grounded in proven principles from other disciplines.

7. The Simplification Challenge

Take a complex digital process and simplify it as much as possible without losing its essence. This could mean streamlining a multi-step task into a one-click action or reducing a cluttered interface to the bare minimum. This exercise teaches the art of distillation, getting to the heart of what’s truly necessary for a great user experience.

Wrapping Up

Incorporating first principles thinking into your UX design process requires a mindset shift that encourages constant curiosity, rigorous questioning, and a deep understanding of the ‘why’ behind every design decision.

Remember that the goal isn’t just to find answers but to ask better, more fundamental questions.

By stripping concepts down to their core, you can build up solutions that are innovative and deeply connected to the real needs of your users.

You Asked, We Answered

Q: What does ‘principles thinking’ mean in design?
A: Principles thinking in design refers to using fundamental guidelines and standards to inform and shape design decisions.

Q: What is first principles thinking in UX design?
A: First principles thinking in UX design involves breaking down complex user experiences into basic elements and reassembling them innovatively.

Q: How does design thinking enhance UX design?
A: Design thinking enhances UX design by promoting empathy, ideation, and iterative testing, leading to user-centered design solutions.

Q: What are the key principles of service design?
A: Key principles of service design include user focus, co-creation, sequencing, and evidencing, ensuring a comprehensive service experience.

Q: How do UX and UI design work together?
A: UX design focuses on overall user journey and functionality, while UI design emphasizes the visual elements and interactivity of the interface.

Q: Can you define a UX design principle?
A: A UX design principle is a guideline that ensures user experiences are effective, efficient, and satisfying.

Q: What is the importance of user experience in design?
A: User experience is crucial in design as it directly affects user satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty.

Q: What role does a UX designer play?
A: A UX designer focuses on understanding user needs and creating intuitive, user-friendly interfaces.

Q: How does interaction design contribute to UX?
A: Interaction design shapes the interactive elements of a product, enhancing user engagement and experience.

Q: What is the core principle of UX design?
A: The core principle of UX design is to prioritize the user’s needs and experiences in all design aspects.

Q: Why is visual hierarchy important in UX design?
A: Visual hierarchy guides users’ attention to key elements, improving readability and navigation in UX design.

Q: How does UX research influence the design process?
A: UX research provides insights into user behaviors and preferences, informing and validating design decisions.

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