The power of product principles

October 24, 2023 in Product design

Some time ago, I teased my newsletter subscribers about creating a product design course. The response was amazing, and I was really excited. However, things got busy with work, which is great, especially in today's economy. But I also hit a roadblock with writer's block.

Recently, I took a break from the online world, and it made me realize something important. Maybe it's not reasonable to expect myself to sit down and write a whole course when I'm struggling to even write blog posts. It's like signing up for a marathon when I'm not in shape for a 5k. It might be possible, but the process and results won't be great.

So, here's a new promise from me: I'm going to get back into consistent writing. For over 6 years, I published blog posts every two weeks. But eventually, I felt like I was running out of topics and just repeating myself. Well, here's to another 6 years of bi-weekly publishing. And what better way to kick it off than by talking about principles?

A unique approach to designing: starting with words, not images

As you may know, I have a bit of a different approach to starting my design process. Instead of diving right into design tools like Figma, I begin by writing. For me, the key at this early stage is to define the problem as clearly as possible.

I understand that many designers are eager to start designing to "explore," but without a clear problem definition, there's a risk of exploring too broadly and losing sight of the scope. While thinking outside the box has its place, as creatives, we should also know when to embrace the box.

Now, let me make it clear that I'm not here to claim that this process works for everyone. In fact, it definitely doesn't. As we're finally acknowledging that the famous double diamond isn't the ultimate solution to all problems, and not the one-size-fits-all process, it's a good time for designers at all levels to reflect on their own processes and discover new avenues to explore.

“Doing the double diamond lacks purpose, continuity and context because the designer isn’t reacting to the unexpected and emerging questions or situations they find themselves in rather the double diamond offers answers to questions designers often don’t have.”
- Death to the double diamond

Product principles aren't the very first thing I jot down, but I've noticed they start to take shape in my mind quite early in the process. Naturally, at the beginning, I don't have all the context and knowledge to clearly define them. However, since product principles essentially make up the core DNA of a product, it's crucial to start thinking about them early and revisit them often.

Product principles are like the fundamental values that steer every action and decision of the product team. They serve as a compass, keeping the product aligned with the values the team aims to uphold and preserve.

"Something I learned from my time at Glitch, was that before you get too deep into the process of building, you should write out a short list of product design principles. The more unique and definitive your values are, the more useful they’ll be as a decision making tool later on."
- Kinopio’s design principles

Principles Beyond Products: A Broader Application

Absolutely, principles aren't limited to just products. They have a broader application. For instance, leaders like Wendy Johansson share their principles, and you can find principles for various domains, such as "calm tech" or design principles on platforms like Principles.design (which is indeed a fantastic resource!). And let's not forget the iconic Dieter Rams and his timeless principles for good design. Principles can guide and shape our thinking and actions in various aspects of life and work.

Principles: your guiding light through tech complexity

Coaching a product designer as he was building a prototype for a tech company, I ran into a common issue. While the features worked, I had trouble grasping the exact message he wanted to convey with them. After some back and forth, I suggested he take a moment to establish some fundamental principles.

The beauty of principles is that they're typically not customer-facing, giving you the freedom to decide how abstract or concrete they should be. As Pirijan wisely points out, good principles exist to make you feel the pain before your users do. They act as guides and constraints that encourage creative thinking when dealing with complexity.

In the world of tech, one thing is certain: even the simplest features can become complex over time. Having a set of principles allows us to step back and approach complexity with clarity.

I've found that the most effective principles are guiding, not overly descriptive – they're like guardrails, not rigid fences. They help steer the process without stifling creativity.

Delightful convenience

When collaborating with Ueno on the Zabka app experience, our aim was to create an experience that embodied "delightful convenience in every way, every day." Instead of rigid rules, we leaned toward principles and best practices, except in instances where our recommendations were non-negotiable, such as product naming conventions and character counts.

These principles were crafted to establish a shared vision, ensuring that the product team—both present and future—aligned on the same objectives. In total, we had six guiding principles, but here are three that I believe played a significant role in shaping the product:

  • Delightfully simple - We enable customers to complete their missions quickly and effectively, without distraction or need for help through simple and effective interfaces.

  • Smart and natural - The experience should be fast, smart, and above all, natural. Interactions don’t feel machine-generated, even when they are.

  • Easy reliability - Because there’s no convenience without trust, we remove the stress and uncertainty that comes with digital purchases. We deliver with assurance, trust and security.

These principles may seem obvious, but because we had the buy-in and acceptance of all teams, they eliminated any debates about marketing banners, tooltips, and even dark patterns. When your principle is to be delightfully simple, it extends to making it delightfully simple to perform actions like canceling an order, filing a complaint, or deleting your account. Principles aren't limited to just the revenue-generating aspects; they apply to everything, ensuring a consistent and user-centered experience across the board.

Default helpful

When collaborating with Summer Health alongside Matthew, we kicked off the process by defining our principles quite early on. Since I'm deeply engaged in every aspect of the product journey at Summer Health, it's been truly rewarding to witness how these principles have guided us in making crucial decisions.

At Summer Health, we've established six principles (though that number wasn't intentional; there's no perfect number, but I tend to keep it between 4 and 7). Here are a couple of them worth highlighting:

  • Simple but warm - We enable our customers to handle their missions quickly and efficiently with intuitive features, user interfaces, and communication. Our language is easy to understand and friendly. We avoid using complicated words and speak in a gentle tone.

  • Default helpful - We strive to be helpful to parents, whether they explicitly ask for assistance or not. By anticipating potential scenarios that may occur in the near future, we proactively remain top-of-mind for when they need our help.

  • Deeply personal - Parents entrust us with the care of their children, who are the most important thing in their lives. We honor this trust by providing a deeply personal experience, actively listening, and exceeding expectations.

  • Human connection - We believe that parents are looking for a genuine human connection with providers, because beyond getting care parents want deep empathy from our providers. Human connection builds trust and enduring relationships, and we seek opportunities to reinforce that throughout our experience.

The universality of foundational principles

It's fascinating to observe how two products, even with entirely different features (a grocery delivery app versus telehealth for children), can still share foundational principles. The power of great principles lies in how they define how to do something, not necessarily what to do.

Similarly, it's essential to understand that product principles aren't metrics. A principle is never something you "achieve" or "reach." It remains a constant guiding light throughout the product's journey.

So whether you're working on a product, your portfolio, or building your own brand, take a moment to reflect on the principles and the kind of experience you aim to create. Principles are the North Star that keeps your work on the right path.

Product principles are invaluable because they provide a consistent and guiding framework that transcends specific features or metrics. They help align teams, inspire creativity, and ensure that the user experience remains coherent and user-centric throughout a product's development journey.

It’s honest, authentic, and accessible.

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