How Figma Applies Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics

By Zeaj Zamoranos

UW/UX Waterloo
9 min readNov 16, 2023



Evaluating successful design encompasses various apoproaches, with the heuristic method standing out as one of the most widely embraced. Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics often serve as the foundational framework when establishing new rules and guidelines for usability. This renowned set of principles becomes the compass guiding us as we explore Figma, a beloved design tool used by many designers alike, through a heuristic lens.

Before diving into this exploration, it’s important to grasp a deeper understanding of what Nielsen’s heuristics truly entail. Introduced by Jakob Nielsen back in 1994, these guidelines have served as invaluable rules of thumb to steer design decisions in the right direction. From the pursuit of simplicity to ensuring consistency, these 10 heuristics chart the course for creating user-friendly interfaces that leave users satisfied.

1 — Visibility of System Status ✅

“The design should always keep users informed about what is going on through appropriate feedback within a reasonable amount of time.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

Don’t leave users in the dark on what is happening in the design. The user-interface (UI) should consistently communicate information about ongoing processes and the user’s current location within the system. Offer clear feedback and eliminate confusion about individual actions and processes.

Figma effectively applies this heuristic by delivering real-time feedback on the system’s status. For instance, the “Pages” panel, typically located on the left-hand side of the screen, and allows users to navigate seamlessly between different pages within a design file; providing a clear hierarchical view for quick switching. Additionally, Figma’s UI has a “Layers” panel, offering a hierarchical view of the layers within the currently selected frame or component. While this isn’t a traditional sidebar, it effectively serves the purpose of organizing and navigating layers within the design, enhancing overall user experience.

A video giphy showcasing Figma’s user interface, highlighting the “Pages” and “Layers” panel.
Going through Figma’s “Pages” and “Layers” panel

2 — Match between system and the real world 🌎

“The design should speak the users’ language. Use words, phrases, and concepts familiar to the user, rather than internal jargon. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

Part of supporting this heuristic involves leveraging users’ familiarity with the real world to help them understand controls and concepts within an application. Terms, concepts, icons, and images, while clear to some, may pose confusion to others. To enhance user understanding, it’s essential that interfaces adhere to established patterns and yield anticipated results, fostering an “intuitive” (in the sense of feeling familiar) and user-friendly experience.

In the case of Figma, this principle is exemplified through the integration of commonplace actions such as drag-and-drop and the incorporation of universally recognized keyboard shortcuts (for instance, CTRL/CMD + Z for undo). These design choices align seamlessly with established industry practices and ensure that Figma’s interface meets users’ expectations.

3 — User control and freedom 👩‍💻

“Users often perform actions by mistake. They need a clearly marked ‘emergency exit’ to leave the unwanted action without having to go through an extended process.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

Next, with features such as undo and redo, Figma accounts for human error by allowing users to correct options and explore freely. When it’s easy for users to back out of a process or undo an action, it instills a sense of confidence, and encourages exploration of the app to learn and discover features. The flexibility in editing and customization options on their app also allows users to structure their workspace as per their preferences, which provides a sense of control and freedom.

Giphy displays Figma’s editing options for users to undo and redo individual actions
Figma’s undo and redo editing features make corrections faster to do

4 — Consistency and standards 🤝

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform and industry conventions.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

In the dynamic realm of UX/UI design, these heuristics transcend beyond mere rules; they are essential pillars for design. These principles emphasize the significance of user-centred design, efficient and consistent practices, minimizing cognitive load for users, and enhancing learnability. Despite the inherently creative nature of design, these guidelines act as grounding elements for creativity, ensuring that it serves the ultimate purpose — creating delightful and effective user experiences.

Directing our focus to Figma, the platform recognizes that designers engage with a variety of design and prototyping tools. Upon opening Figma, the goal is to create an environment that feels both welcoming and familiar. Figma’s interface is thoughtfully aligned with users’ expectations, making design workflows not only efficient but also intuitive in the sense that it feels familiar to the user. It embraces well-established conventions, such as the arrow cursor for drag-and-drop actions, the eye icon for adjusting the viewability of layers, and the magnifying class icon indicating the search feature. By incorporating these familiar elements, Figma’s interface becomes immediately understandable, significantly reducing the learning curve, especially for news users.

A giphy that showcases a demonstration of toggling the “eye” icon on Figma’s layers panel, a feature that allows users to manipulate a layer’s viewability.
Toggling the “eye” icon allows users to manipulate layer’s viewability

5 — Error prevention 🧷

Good error messages are important, but the best designs carefully prevent problems from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

It’s a well-researched phenomenon that users tend to start using things rather than taking time to understand them first. This common user behaviour, also known as the paradox of the active user, urges designers to craft workflows that preemptively address issues as users explore and learn a platform’s system or experiment with new features.

To support this dynamic behaviour, Figma has ingeniously woven a safety net to mitigate the potential for errors. For example, Figma’s real-time collaboration and automatic saving features creates an environment where users can seamlessly work without the concern of losing their work or progress. As an added layer of security, Figma’s version history feature serves as a reassuring safety net, allowing users to roll back to previous states in case of unintended changes.

Shows a giphy recording displaying Figma’s version history and the ability for users to restore previous versions of their design file.
Version history allows users to view edits made to a design file, and allows them to restore previous versions

6 — Recognition rather than recall 💭

Minimize the user’s memory load by making elements, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the interface to another. Information required to use the design (e.g., field labels or menu items) should be visible or easily retrievable when needed.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

Recognition and recall play a significant role in user interfaces. Recognition involves identifying something as familiar, while recall is about retrieving information from memory. Interfaces that prioritize recognition reduce the cognitive effort required from users.

Drawing back to Figma’s interface, users won’t need to solely rely on memory or recall-based actions. Instead, they encourage users to recognize information in the interface and access features through visible, labeled icons and familiar menus (do you notice how these heuristics tie together?) rather than forcing them to recall it. In implementing these design choices for its platform, Figma enhances the learnability and usability of the platform, offering a seamless experience, especially for users new to the tool who often prefer recognizing familiar actions for efficient and hassle-free navigation.

Giphy displays the tools found on Figma’s toolbar
Figma’s toolbar menu is designed in a similar format to most design tools, allowing for a feeling of familiarity for designers

7 — Flexibility and efficiency of use ⏳

“Shortcuts — hidden from novice users — may speed up the interaction for the expert users such that the design can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

The design system should adapt flexibility to user needs. It should instruct new users in detail, and allow more experienced users to take shortcuts or even offer options to automate frequently performed and repetitive actions. Efficiency is a treasure for more proficient users of complex applications, like Figma. However, an interesting phenomenon occurs across users, where they eventually reach a point known as the efficiency plateau. This plateau marks a stage where continued usage doesn’t significantly increase efficiency. Even as users become fully versed in the interface, they eventually max out their ability to gain further efficiencies through task repetition.

Figma offers a solution to this challenge through accelerators, which are UI features designed to help users speed up interactions and processes. For instance, Figma allows designers to create and reuse component libraries. This feature acts as an accelerator by allowing users to quickly access and apply predefined design elements, such as buttons, navigation bars, or icons, across multiple projects. It simplifies the design process and maintains consistency in design, ultimately increasing efficiency.

Giphy that displays the ability to use Figma’s component library, which helps to streamline design process
Reusable components save time for designers by speeding up the design process

8 — Aesthetic and minimalist design ✨

Interfaces should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in an interface competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

This heuristic highlights the importance of keeping content and visual design focused on the essentials, ensuring that the visual elements of the UI support the user’s primary goals. An aesthetic and clear interface, with an orderly layout, contributes to overall better system readability.

Figma embraces a minimalist design approach that prioritizes content and functionality. Despite offering many tools, functions, and even customizable plugins to the hands of designers, their organized approach significantly reduces visual distractions and fosters an environment where designers can concentrate on their design tasks with clarity and efficiency. By minimizing visual clutter, Figma not only enhances aesthetics but also elevates the usability of the platform, ensuring that the focus remains exactly where it should be — on the design process itself.

Screenshot shows Figma’s interface, which matches the heuristic of minimalism and aesthetics
Figma’s minimal and organized interface

9 — Help users recognize, diagnose, recover from errors 🔎

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no error codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

Error messages should also be presented with visual treatments that will help users notice and recognize them. They should be understandable and comprehensive, and clearly indicate how to solve the problem at hand.

Figma provides clear error messages and explanations when issues arise. Users can quickly identify the problem and understand its implications. One situational example of this may be when designers venture into prototyping their designs for various devices like mobile, tablet, or desktop platforms, they might occasionally encounter challenges related to high-fidelity prototype interactions. For instance, errors for interactive scrolling in prototypes will be indicated with the widely recognized exclamation mark enveloped in the middle of a triangle — a symbol many readily identify as a warning symbol. This visual clarity enhances users’ ability to recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors seamlessly.

A giphy displaying Figma’s use of the warning symbol, which helps users recognize and recover from high-fidelity prototyping errors during the design process.
The warning symbol helps users recognise and recover from prototyping errors

10 — Help and documentation 📝

It’s best if the system doesn’t need any additional explanation. However, it may be necessary to provide documentation to help users understand how to complete their tasks.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

Recognizing that even the most well-designed interfaces may leave users with questions or the need for guidance, this heuristic highlights the importance of providing documentation that is easy for users to search and understand.

Figma, in its commitment to a user-centric approach, offers great support and documentation resources to assist users in times of need. Within its platform, as well as social media platforms like their YouTube channel, users can easily access an extensive knowledge base, user guides, and tutorials. These resources provide clear, step-by-step instructions covering various aspects of its platform, spanning from basic functions and tools to advanced features. In cases where users encounter difficulties or uncertainties, these guides serve as valuable aids in resolving issues and enhancing users understanding.



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