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The importance of Gestalt laws for UX design planning

We are increasingly opting to conduct tasks within a 2D world rather than 3D. It used to be that the only way to transfer money into a bank account was to visit a building made of bricks and mortar, turn the door handle, enter, and conduct a transaction with another human being.

Now I can login at the click of a button on a flat screen, and within a few more clicks my task is complete. The rise of the digital age has provided us with quick, convenient services, greater functionality and limitless opportunities. But what are the pitfalls of abandoning the traditional 3D environment and entrusting 2D with such important tasks?

As a species we possess highly sophisticated systems of perception, evolved through a long history of interactions within 3D environments. The ability for our brains to organise the mess of visual stimuli and perceive order has helped to keep us alive for millions of years. Whether it’s learning to stay away from dangerous snakes, or remembering to eat the right coloured berries, our brains have learned to recognise important visual patterns in the environment and recall vital information relating to such patterns.

3D environments have an advantage by providing rich visual stimulus and natural affordance for actions and feedback to the user. However, 2D environments cannot generate anywhere near the same complexity of information - unable to inform touch, smell, or the ability to examine objects from different angles – and designers have had to rely on abstract symbolism and metaphors as a way of linking digital concepts to our mental model of the real world.

Our brains possess self-organising tendencies – or laws of visual perception – that can help us to make better sense of such 2D objects.

Gestalt psychology began in the 1920s, Germany, and is the study of such laws of visual perception. Since the 2D interface is the only platform of communication between designer and user, so its importance should not be underestimated or overlooked.

Just like a scientist or engineer should understand the law of gravity in order to build a space shuttle and send it to the moon, a designer should also understand the laws of Gestalt before building an intuitive user interface.

The Law of Proximity

Individuals perceive objects that are close to each other as forming a group. This may seem to be common sense, but having good grasp of this concept is key to assigning common meaning to buttons.

The Law of Similarity

Elements within an assortment of objects are perceptually grouped together if they are similar to each other. Much like proximity, similarity can help group objects together. The two laws used together can produce powerful effects, as with the interface below: the buttons on the left and the buttons on the bottom are clearly two sets of functions relating to two concepts, both because they are grouped close to each other, and they have the same look and style.

The Law of Closure

Individuals perceive recognised objects as being complete when they are not. When we look at the two images above we see an incomplete circle and a rectangle. But, if an android were to look at the shapes (depending on how far AI has progressed), they would most likely just see a series of different lines assembled in different configurations of x and y coordinates. Our brains are hard-wired to link the gaps and create order out of chaos. This law can be used to powerful effect in the form of visual design. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the image below is the white upside down triangle which is not there.

The Law of Figure Ground

Identifying figure from the background. This is when there is conflict between the image that the brain recognises in the foreground, compared to the image in the background. As with the image above, the viewer may either see a chalice, or two faces looking at each other. This law can be used for powerful effect with logo design, as seen below. Morgan Banks is a user experience architect/interaction designer at Accenture

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