Every product or feature should be based on a set of design principles. I’m not talking about generic principles like “less is more” or “simple” (refer to the list below for universal principles of good design). No, I’m talking about design principles that uniquely apply to the specific product or feature that you’re building.
Think of it this way. Generic design principles apply to everything. They’re like air or gravity or other things inevitable and necessary. Just learn then, apply them, and move on.
On the other hand, the kind of design principles this article focuses on are those specific to the product or feature you are designing now. Which is different from the product or feature your friend is designing. For example, at Slack we expect the principles that guide design from the Messaging team to be different than principles that guide design from the Search team.
Now, a word on why principles are important. Fundamentally, design principles are important because they help your team make decisions. Design principles should be foundational; set them up first, before you start designing. Then, as you move through the design process, your team should refer back to the principles. Question whether your design decisions uphold the principles or break them. For example, in a recent project related to the redesign of Slack’s information architecture we established a principle to provide the lowest number of access points possible to meet the user’s primary intent. By sticking with this principle we were presented with the hard work of identifying what and why people primarily use Slack (with such an open-ended product, no shortage of opinions about that) and made hard decisions to eliminate a number of top-level UI elements. But the principle served its purpose. We made the decision, efficiently, and moved forward.
One last note before we get to the tips. Design principles are meant to be reflexive. Through the design process you may find that, based on your design work and what you learn about it, your original principles need to be adjusted. Perhaps you receive overwhelmingly positive user feedback on a design that is in conflict with a principle. That’s an indication the principle should be a candidate for reconsideration. While good design principles (that follow the tips below) typically aren’t significantly adjusted during the design process, principles aren’t meant to be immutable. They should be treated as a living part of the design process.
So, now to the good stuff: how to write effective product or feature specific design principles? Here are a few tips…
- Make them opinionated.
The primary point of design principles is to help your team make decisions. Accordingly, effective principles offer a point of view. This POV should be based on needs of your users, their current perception of your product, and your business context. For example, one of the design principles Slack’s Admin design team uses is “prioritize flexibility over simplicity.” This principle is informed by the POV that Slack is used in a wide range of industries, regions, and scales and therefore Slack administrators are extremely different than each other. In order for them to be most confident in their role, admins need to be able to customize the tool to fit their unique context. What I love about this principle is that it’s informed by what we know about our admin users, and it also has a POV. It states that the team will do X over Y. The opinionated nature of this principle make the team’s decision making much easier.
- Make them unambiguous.
Good design principles should be clear and exacting and have no double meaning. Think about the context you are designing for. Is it for a medical use case, photo sharing, a meditation app? Use your context as a guide to refine the wording of your principles so they clearly convey a singular meaning to people on your team. One helpful technique is to make your users a part of your principles. For example, when designing a photo or video sharing app you might want to include the term “creator” in a principle. Something like: “We always give creators control over their content.” This is much clearer than “Give control over content.”
- Make them memorable.
Use one simple, pithy sentence to express each principle. Two sentences is one too many. Don’t use complicated or sophisticated words. It’s entirely ok to couple your one sentence principle with complementary sub-text. However, the sub-text shouldn’t be needed to make sense of the principle.
- Make them relevant.
As much as possible, pair each principle with a common example. By showcasing how the principle was used to make a decision in the past, your team will better understand how to apply the principle to future decisions.
- Use them.
Good principles are put into use. Print them out. Put them up in your design space. Refer to them during critiques. It may feel uncomfortable or artificial at first, but over time your team will grow accustomed to using the principles to make better decisions.
Conclusion: The Bottom Line
Design is not just a certain list of steps. It takes both, creativity and courage to think beyond the possibilities of the world. While working on design principles, be sure to stick to your vison and manage your creative flow wisely. As, only then, your end results would be worth noting down for your audience.
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