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Design digest: Product design principles

Our regular wrap up of trending topics in UX, UI and digital product design.

Simone Hutsch, Unsplash

Welcome to the Design Digest – our regular wrap up of the issues, trends and themes affecting UX, UI and digital product design. This issue, we’re discussing product design principles – what they are, why they’re useful, and how to use them.

As designers of digital products it’s our job to make decisions that deliver the best experience to our users and achieve the goals of businesses we work with. Product design principles are a useful tool that help make sure these decisions are good ones, that our process and approach steers us to the right outcomes, and that whatever we go on to create ultimately adds value for users.

What are product design principles?

Product design principles are a set of values and considerations that define a product and how it should perform. They describe the most important traits a product must have in order to work for users and provide a set of criteria to decide whether new ideas are the right thing to implement.

At their best, they also serve as provocations for inventing new features that add genuine value. They’re short statements and watchwords, written to be guiding, actionable and memorable.

The primary goal of product design principles is to establish a set of values to help inform our work, and serve as another tool for decision-making during the design process.

Caitlin Osbahr,

Senior Product Designer, BuzzFeed

Product design principles are by their nature bespoke and different teams define them differently depending on their needs. Broadly speaking, they’re written in one of two styles, product virtues and product culture.

Product virtues

This style sets out everything the best version of a product should embody.

For example, one of Spotify’s product design principles is human – “it’s about communication, expression, and human connection.” This principle feeds into platform features like personalising ‘Discover Weekly’ with a user’s profile picture and adding cute, expressive avatars to Spotify Kids. Small touches like these both add delight and differentiate the product.

Publishing platform Medium takes another interesting approach to their principles by framing them as a set of tradeoffs. “Direction over choice” shaped the simple design of their text editor, favouring focus on the core task of writing over the distraction of decoration options ,which are deprioritised in the UI.

Product culture.

This style captures a shared sense of what matters most in the way a product is delivered.

Gov.UK’s first product design principle is, “Start with user needs. Service design starts with identifying user needs. If you don’t know what the user needs are, you won’t build the right thing”. This principle famously finds its way into the origins of every feature and unites a huge platform with an underlying approach to delivery.

Likewise, BuzzFeed use their design principles to embed a data driven approach to design: “Learn, learn again. Know the data surrounding your product well enough to discuss, describe and deeply inform your design work. Constantly validate your ideas through A/B testing or qualitative analysis.”

"With so much growth, it became critical for us to have a shared vision to guide the execution and output of our work."

Magera Moon, Product Designer, Etsy

Why use product design principles?

There are three reasons to use product design principles.

Firstly, they help you make better decisions, more quickly. Product design principles guide teams towards better decision making, especially when compromises need to be made. With a single, shared vision, everyone who contributes to the product can pull in the same direction all the time, knowing that it’ll be for the benefit of the user. With a clearer idea of what good looks like, decisions can also be made more quickly, meaning less time discussing and more time delivering.

The second is that they create an effective culture. Product design principles define how to deliver excellence. With an aligned approach, the practices that go into creating every feature guarantee they’ll both be the right thing for users and create a coherent experience across every part of a product. A codified culture also helps to onboard new team members and scale successful habits as products grow.

And finally, they keep things consistent. Product design principles guard against straying from the original aims of a product. By establishing what the product is and isn’t, it’s easier to avoid superfluous features that don’t meet user needs and maintain the integrity of a product’s original vision. Having a single, shared set of criteria for working out the right thing to do bakes consistency into every decision throughout a product’s lifecycle.

"Instead of relying on gatekeepers to keep a high quality bar, better instead that everyone gets to agreement on a smaller set of guiding values, so that the best decisions get made in a consistent manner, scaling across many decisions and even many designers."

Julie Zhuo, VP Product Design, Facebook

How to create product design principles

Root them in user needs.

Make sure your principles solve the right things. Put the ground work in to understand your customers and what the product needs to solve for them first. Design principles should turn research into actions that keep users at the heart of every decision.

Make them actionable.

Principles shouldn’t be abstract or ‘woolly’. They should be a call to action that can inspire new ideas. It’s good to include an accompanying sentence to add extra clarity and make sure the point is understood. Too many is a bad thing – around five is ideal. Many more and they’ll become less memorable.

Align them with the brand.

Principles should ensure that the unique qualities of a brand find their way into users’ hands. Why this product over another? What makes it better? What should interacting with it feel like? Avoid obvious generalisms like ‘we’re user friendly’, but if you need to, unpack what it means specifically for your product.

Keep them future facing.

It’s vital to align with the aims of the business and be mindful of how it plans to grow. Try to create principles that will stay true to users needs in the longer term based on behaviours, not features.

Create them in collaboration.

Involve the people working on every part of the product, both to gain a broad set of insights and get buy-in from everyone on the team. When your principles are done, make sure they’re easy to find and broadcast to the people who need to deliver on them.

Be ambitious.

Think of the very best version of the product, on its very best day. Your principles should challenge and inspire awesome outputs to hit that vision.

Read next

Design Principles: An open source collection of Design Principles and methods

A great lists of curated design principles from some of the world’s most awesome products.

A Matter of Principle, Julie Zhuo

Former Product Design VP at Facebook on the importance of understanding the ‘whys’ behind your product.

Design principles, InVision

A useful guide to design principles and how to make them unique to your needs.

Crafting Product-Specific Design Principles to Support Better Decision Making, Maria Rosala

A handy how-to with a helpful video worth three minutes of any prod bod’s time.

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