The Purpose of Principles

From strategy to guidelines.

I’ve not been around all the blocks but I’ve certainly strolled up and down long enough to have seen my fill of strategies, tactics, guidelines, principles, ‘guiding principles’(!!), approaches and rules etc.

These words, amongst others, are used in various contexts to mean different things to different people and organisations. However, they really amount to one thing; our human need to make sense of the abstract world of concepts and ideas.

Principles are, for the most part, created with the best of intentions, often to refine a goal and provide the means of focus to achieve that goal. All very good stuff. Unfortunately, due to their conceptual nature, they are often poorly articulated and inaccurately contextualised; left open to misinterpretation or simply ignored due to their inefficacy.

In short, most people don’t really understand the purpose of principles. So I’d like to share a point on view on the purpose of principles within a design context. I’m first going to define what i think principles are useful for, then show how principles work structurally i.e. within broader strategy and tactical implementation.

A few ground rules:

Firstly, what I’m providing here is a point of view born out of experience, which I must credit in part to my time working with Engine, and is by no means a perfect definition.

Secondly, when I use the word ‘design’, I mean it in the broadest sense which, to my mind, is best summed up by Herbert Simon:

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

That being said, I assume the readership has at least some experience with the world of User Experience (UX), Customer Experience (CX), innovation, business design, service design, etc.

I’ve already suggested that the purpose of a principle is to define a goal and provide a focus to achieve that goal. In fact, at a high enough level, a goal is often expressed in principle terms. One of my favourites is by Spacex, the space exploration company started by Elon Musk of Paypal and, most recently, Tesla fame.

“SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft…enabling people to live on other planets.”

This defines what the company does and qualifies why they are doing that. A principle then is a statement that clarifies, and is clarified by, other statements. Simples. Sort of. In practice, the craft of creating principles (and it is most definitely a craft) is far more nuanced. There are a number of ways principles can be crafted and used.

7 principles for creating principles

  1. Inspire and motivate — used generatively to elicit a response from a particular audience who are often internal stakeholders.
  2. Challenge assumptions — with the current state of play. Tools to examine and probe what already exists.
  3. Spot opportunities — in the current landscape arising from unmet and unarticulated needs.
  4. Stimulate ideas — building into opportunity areas.
  5. Provide focus and structure — to develop ideas appropriately.
  6. Evaluate and validate — to make a decision and make sure it’s right.
  7. Guide and direct — to stay on a chosen path as part of a broader strategy.

Really well crafted principles should be effective across all 7 areas, although its likely that they will be created with a narrower focus in mind. For instance, an organisation may have a clear high level strategy and a steady operating model but lack the tools to innovate. In this instance they might create principles that inspire and enable them to spot opportunities and stimulate ideas. Essentially using principles as a tool to ask well framed ‘how might we?’ questions.

To explore how principles can be used at different levels lets take a semi-fictitious example of bank seeking to invigorate their mobile offer. Here we have 4 levels at which principles could be created with a couple of examples at each level.

Strategy — Why are we doing it

  • lead and innovate through mobile
  • support personal banking

Product/service principles — What is it

  • focused on the basics
  • one app, many widgets

Design principles — How do we make it

  • simplify obsessively
  • be recognisably brand x in all interactions

Design guidelines — How will customers use/experience it

  • scrolling not click through or carousels
  • reflect colour pallet

There is a clear hierarchy here — where ‘design guidelines’ reflect the higher order ‘design principles’ which in turn reflect ‘product/service principles’ and so on. Drawing out the connection between strategy and implementation is often the most valuable outcome of creating principles.

However, within the same order of principle there should be little or no hierarchy. Principles should conceptually interlock with each other to form a coherent whole that connects to the strategy or higher order principles above.

Creating a coherent whole does not mean that all principles bleed into one another. Apparent contradictions or differences between principles is perfectly normal and sometimes beneficial. For example, there might be a principle around being ‘swift’ as well as one around being ‘measured’ which, on face value, could be seen as contradictory.

It is often this contradiction or polarity that helps define the overall shape and tone of a strategy, service, product, etc. Much in the same way, a square has opposing corners but they all work together to define the very essence of squareness.

I should note that this strata and ordering of principles is not appropriate in all instances. As mentioned previously, there may already be a very clear strategy in place and all that is required is a set of design principles to help research and design teams to align better.

In all instances though the success of putting principles into practice relies on three main things:

- Exposing principles within an organisation while they remain in flux to sense check and iterate as well as help them become common parlance.

- Spending time getting the language right so that they both resonate and provide clarity for the intended audience.

- Testing principles by applying them to something more concrete e.g. running an ideation session with them to generate ideas for new product development.