When we press the preset timer button on a microwave to pop a bag of popcorn, tap the plus symbol to add our favorite songs to a Spotify playlist, or hit the "next episode" button while watching Netflix, we’re using user interfaces to make things happen. 

User interfaces provide us with the necessary instructions and tools to interact with an application or device smoothly. By clearly communicating its features, visual design, and user-friendly navigation, they enable us to efficiently complete tasks and have a satisfying interaction with the brand or product.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • What is a user interface?

  • User interface elements

  • Types of user interfaces

  • Why a good user interface is important to product success

  • User interface design principles

User interface elements

The construction and components of a user interface vary depending on its intended use, but there are some common features and elements that can be found on most websites and apps.

What is a user interface

Navigational elements 

Navigational elements are important in user interfaces. They help us find the pages or information we need, and are easy to recognize and show clear paths to follow. 

Common navigational elements include:

  • Arrows

  • Text, either alone or within a shape

  • Hamburger menus

  • Call-to-action buttons


Icons are small illustrations that represent an object or something conceptual in the physical world. Interactive elements like looking glasses, trash bins, gears, and shopping carts are ubiquitous in the apps we use, and provide instant recognition as to what they do. 


While they often overlap with icons, microinteractions are small, dynamic actions that provide feedback and trigger actions. The paper airplane on Instagram that lets you share a post, DM it to a friend, or add it to your own story is a microinteraction, as is the swooped arrow on Gmail you use to reply to a message. Microinteractions are a big part of user interfaces and guide us in getting things done.

Input forms

Websites often ask for visitors to fill out contact forms or provide email addresses to be added to newsletter lists. Input forms are often made of data input fields, check boxes, and other elements that make it simple for visitors to provide their information.


Drop-downs, tabs, toolbars, and panels are special lists that show users where they can go. These lists are important features of any user interface.

Headers and footers

Headers and footers are like bookends, often containing things like menus and buttons that help people navigate.

Occupying the very top of the screen, a header contains the primary navigation and other helpful elements like search bars and buttons. A header generally stays fixed in position, offering easy access to the rest of the website.

Footers are located at the bottom of the screen and often contain links to important content, site maps, company info, and calls to action. Although footers are less prominent than headers, they’re still an important UI element, providing an opportunity for visitors to stay on a site and take additional actions.

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Types of user interfaces

A user interface can be simplified as the connection between a person and a technological device, but there are various appearances and operations that it can take on. Let’s explore some of the different types of userfaces that are available.

Command-line interface

What is a user interface

Tagging results from a test in Lyssna

One of the first methods of communicating with computers was through command-line interfaces (CLI). These interfaces don’t use images and instead rely on typing in commands and parameters. 

Command-line interfaces (CLIs) are still used today, even though they aren't the typical user interface we think of. CLIs are popular among developers and others who prefer a simpler user experience. Examples of CLIs include version control applications like Git and shells for navigating and managing directories, such as Bash.

Windows, icons, menus, and pointer-based interface

What is a user interface

A windows, icons, menus, and pointer-based interface (WIMP) was the precursor to today’s graphic user interfaces. They had dialog boxes, icons, drop-down panels, and the omnipresent arrow cursor. 

Both MacOS and Microsoft Windows in the mid-1990s were the essence of this type of user interface. When we look at graphic user interfaces in modern web design, we see many of the same features.

Graphic user interface

What is a user interface?

A graphic user interface (GUI) mainly functions through visuals. GUIs are the most widespread type of UI and can be found on smartphones, software panels and toolbars, and other digital devices. The advent of GUIs came about to make interacting with machines feel more inviting and accessible, with icons, buttons, menus, toolbars, and other elements offering intuitive ways to engage.

Touch interface

A touch interface (TUI) reacts when you touch or swipe the screen. Spreading fingers apart to zoom in on a photo or holding down on an app icon to delete it are ways to interact with digital devices. 

We use touchscreens for many things in our daily lives. For example, we use them to withdraw cash from ATMs and to order food from apps like DoorDash.

Gesture-based interface

While touch interfaces need direct contact to work, gesture-based interfaces only require movement. Motion is translated into data, which then triggers actions or commands. Augmented reality devices like Apple’s Vision Pro create immersive experiences, letting people interact with UI elements transposed over the real world around them.

Natural user interfaces

Like gesture-based interfaces, natural user interfaces (NUIs) depend on human involvement to do tasks, but they do so in a more comprehensive way. They combine motion tracking, voice control, and other actions. This removes much of the divide between people and machines.

Why good user interfaces are important to product success

A good user interface is crucial for product success because it shapes brand perception, enhances user experience, and drives conversions. 

Effective UI design can influence how customers view your company, and even small design details can significantly impact user reactions. 

Here are some of the ways a well-designed UI can lead to the success of your product. 

What is a user interface

Brand perception

Your digital offerings affect how people see your brand. Look at big brands like Nike or Apple – their website designs closely align to their brand identities.

Small design details can have a big impact on how people feel. A case study from Meta, discussing Instagram, found that illuminated gradients and typography customized for different global markets helped them better connect with their users. They commented, “Our refreshed visual system puts expression, inclusion, and creativity first, affirming Instagram’s mission to support the creators and communities who are pushing culture forward.”

Seamless user experiences

Effective user interfaces are designed with users in mind. When websites are easy to navigate and use, people are more likely to have a good experience. 

Quick adoption

A well-designed product shows you how to use it without you even realizing it. Familiar UI patterns, clear organization, consistency, and easy navigation let people start using it right away.

Conversion rate optimization

Call-to-action buttons and other clickable elements on a webpage can affect whether people will click on them.

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User interface design principles

Below are some key principles you can follow when designing user interfaces.

Apply human-centered design

User interfaces should be easy to use. You can make them better by doing research, creating user personas, and understanding user preferences. You can also test designs with real people to make sure they're intuitive and natural.

In a Meta case study about WhatsApp, they shared, "The way we approach change on WhatsApp is powerful, and it puts people at the heart of everything we do. When designing, we consider varying levels of connectivity and digital literacy to keep WhatsApp accessible." 

This quote does a great job of highlighting how designs guided by empathy are better geared towards meeting the actual needs of the people using them. 

Devise a distinct and cohesive visual system

The placement of UI elements, as well as the choice of fonts, colors, and other visual aspects, greatly impact their functionality and user-friendliness.


Typefaces have distinct personalities, as well as varying degrees of readability. Choose typography that fits the personality of your brand and is still easy to read. 


When designing a user interface, some elements are more important than others. Make sure to organize your design in a way that shows what’s most important.


When picking a color palette for your user interface, make sure they don't clash with other images or make it hard to read the text. Keep accessibility front of mind.

Create a design system

A design system gathers together elements like text, colors, and styles. It offers guidelines that your brand can use across all its web applications. Having a design system in place leads to user interfaces that are more uniform, which is especially helpful when building new pages or features.

In the case study, Building a Visual Language: Behind the scenes of our new design system, Airbnb explains:  "A unified design system is essential to building better and faster; better because a cohesive experience is more easily understood by our users, and faster because it gives us a common language to work with." 

This poignant quote highlights that having a defined visual syntax not only makes things easier for developers, but also leads to smoother experiences for visitors.

Construct pattern libraries

Pattern libraries focus on defining UI patterns and creating reusable UI elements. They help create a stronger sense of consistency, similar to design systems.

Conduct user testing

To understand if your user interface works well, usability testing is important.

Common forms of testing for assessing UI designs include:

Test user interfaces with Lyssna

As we touched on above, user testing is an important way to find out if your user interface works well. With Lyssna, it’s possible to test prototypes, interactivity, and flows, and gather user feedback. 

Are you new to user testing and don’t know where to start? We offer a free plan and template library, which helps you to get started and gain feedback that you can put into action to optimize your designs.


Jeff Cardello is a freelance writer who loves all things tech and design. Outside of being a word nerd, he enjoys playing bass guitar, riding his bike long distances, and recently started learning about data science and how to code with Python.

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