Defining the WHAT and WHY of Design Principles

August 5, 2021

One of recurring topics of this blog over the past year has surely been Design Principles. I've helped form Design Principles for the projects I've worked on, I've held classes at Hyper Island on Design Principles (although I kinda pivoted it to Design Process), and I've helped coach other designers on how to form actionable Design Principles. But I never really dove into what they are and why they are important.


The website Design Principles (touché) clearly states principles as:

Design Principles are a set of considerations that form the basis of any good product.Design Principles

They are immensely valuable when aligning a team on a direction. They help your team with decision making processes. And also provide a few simple principles or constructive questions that guide your team towards making appropriate decisions. Sounds great right?

Principles generally relate to a specific product. So while Google has its own set of universal principles, each product also has its own principles. That makes sense, right? A product like Google Calendar couldn't share the same principles as Google Glass because the products themselves are so different from each other. A great principle for Google Calendar is "More than boxes on a screen" whereas I think a great principle for Glass is "Don't get in the way".

Principles can also be more generic. For instance, Yves Behar created these 10 principles for Design in the age of AI. A great example of a principle for AI is "Good tech and design is discreet", showcasing that while AI gives us great opportunities it doesn't mean we should need to interact with it constantly, but only when necessary.

They can also be descriptive of a process or an area, like Experience Design or Visual Design. A great example of a principle for Experience Design is "Make actions reversible" and "Reduce latency". These clearly are related to the experience a user is having with a product, but wouldn't be applicable to that product's visual design. In fact, perhaps the most famous set of principles are Dieter Rahms Principles of good design.

Just like brand values, mission statements, or vision decks, design principles can be generic and provide little to no actual value. Paypal's design principles used to be; We Craft, We Simplify, We Connect, We Go All In. The description to the last one begins with "We invent, then reinvent. Design, then redesign." Ok...

But used correctly, design principles help you make decisions resulting in a superior experience.

How to validate your principles

The way I prefer to think about principles is how they serve the user first-hand and the business second-hand. An obvious example would be that your first principle is to create an "easy and efficient user experience". This is often something that many digital products would like to do second, right? It turns out the easy way to validate a principle is to think of the opposite. No one wants a user experience that is complex and difficult to navigate, right? But what about the scenarios that might not align with your business goals? If easy to use is a principle, how easy should you make it to cancel your account? To unsubscribe from your newsletter? To navigate the page with a screen reader (or are you saying your principles only apply to some users)?

Amazon famously introduced the one-click checkout. It also turns out that canceling your account is far from one-click. In fact, it's nine clicks and that's assuming you know exactly where to click which is far from obvious.

Another example is AirBnB that has "Conversational" as one of their principles. While this is true for most of their website, if you look at their Privacy Policy you can easily tell that it's just legalese. It's easy to argue that it's written by lawyers and that it has to be a certain way. But if one of your principles is to be Conversational, why not look at what LinkedIn does? On top of every section, they explain the section in plain English. You can have legalese AND still be conversational.

In short, principles can't just be fancy words. They need to guide us. They need to point us in directions that we might not had anticipated heading towards. They need to help us verify our designs and solutions. They need to help us better serve our users AND our companies.

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