When it comes to creating great user interface (UI) design, you can learn an awful lot from bad design. These cautionary tales are worth their weight in gold – because when you’re tempted to deviate from the tried and true, it’ll be clear where the wrong path leads—and hopefully be able make a U-turn and get back to good design.

Of all the mistakes that can be made, here are the 3 you should keep in mind during your next project:

  1. Forgetting the User. Those of us with strong development leanings often (inadvertently) design for what we know or need, instead of what the users know or need. This age-old problem occurs in other areas of software development as well: testing and documentation also stand out. Designing for yourself  almost always immediately makes the user feel incapable of using the product.

  3. Not Giving Users Control. UI designers’ need to control is evident in applications where navigation items are grayed out. Users should always be able to dictate what events occur – and in what order – according to their natural predilections and existing workflows. So if you’re spending a lot of time dynamically graying out controls, stop it. Your design approach is attempting to  control the user—who in most cases doesn’t want to be controlled.

  5. Offering Too Many Features at the Top Level. This is one of my favorites, and quite possibly the one I’ve seen most often over the past 20 years. Take a look at any VCR (remember those?) built in 1985 – and then look at one built in 1995 or later, or at today’s DVD units. The model built in 1985 has a million buttons on the faceplate of the unit, most of which are a mystery, because God only knows where the manual is. Modern devices, on the other hand, only have buttons for the core features people use: play, fast-forward, reverse, stop, and eject. And guess what? these modern devices have a million more features than those built a decade before, but they’re hidden behind a drop-down panel or sliding door—or accessed via onscreen controls. Accessible when needed but not staring you in the face. While you do have to ensure that features used frequently are readily available, you don’t have to put everything on the first screen or load the toolbar with rarely used buttons.

I’m interested to hear what you’ve encountered in your experience – what kind of mistakes do you see most often?