Evolving Design Principles

Issue 15

Adventures in UX Design is a newsletter helping you navigate UX roadblocks.

You’ve heard the old phrase about hindsight being 20/20. Some problems don’t reveal themselves until you are neck-deep in the project and well down the road toward completion. If only we could relive the past with the knowledge we have from the future, we’d avoid a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

Identifying lessons learned from our experiences and boiling them into global design principles and processes that inform future decisions sounds simple enough. But beware of principles espousing empty platitudes and facile solutions. The best design principles come from teams who have identified a problem and determined that what they’ve learned forms a principle that can be applied to future work, products, and experiences.

It’s not unlike the lessons of classic horror films, which also navigate blood, sweat, and tears. The audience understands these lessons, but the characters in the story never do. Even the occasional fan can identify the core principles and tropes that frame the structure of the genre:

  • The group always splits up, and then dies
  • At least one foolhardy soul investigates the source of the guttural, phlegmy, inhuman noise emanating from the darkened hallway/basement/woodsy path on a moonless night, with a crappy, flickering flashlight
  • The virgin survives
  • Bad guys and monsters die twice at a minimum
  • Nothing ever good comes out of a cellar
  • Dolls are not your friend or appropriate playthings for a child

The design principles we identify from experience and research don’t have to be a horror show. In this issue, we investigate how teams can identify design principles that inform and improve their work, and how design systems identify, codify, and reuse patterns to streamline process and create visually consistent experiences.

1. Define Design Principles That Work

Nathan Curtis is leery of design principles that encompass nonspecific, obvious ideas like simplicity, and fey notions of the amount of magic you might add to your work (Be Magical!).

Nathan has written extensively about Design Systems: the value of having them, the elements of successful systems, and the management and development of systems within a business.

At that heart of a design system are core beliefs, supporting beams, if you will, to the structure and approach to the system you create. These beliefs are design principles, and Nathan identifies eight that guide his work in a Medium article exploring the issue.

Good design principles need to be specific enough to guide teams, but not so specific that they limit their application. For example, Nathan’s first three principles provide a good sketch of the purpose of the system, which we’ve paraphrased below:

  1. Systems solve easy problems so products can focus on hard problems more easily.
  2. Unless a component can be shared and used across products, it creates noise within a design system.
  3. Design systems equip products with tools that help them realize a destiny.

How are these principles applied? For his first principle, Nathan uses buttons as an example. It’s a topic he addressed in a UIE virtual seminar. Buttons are ubiquitous product components and at first blush seem simple. But they are actually more complex than one might think, and spending time identifying the states and variations of the buttons you create for products can ultimately save time for teams working across platforms, and reduce design debt that takes the form of inconsistent treatment of components that degrade the quality and consistency of an experience.

If teams have identified a pattern or component that is exceptional, that they love, but it doesn’t have an application to other products, then it doesn’t have a place within the design system, as Nathan’s second principle outlines, because it will only create confusion. Principle #3 defines how systems contain components, patterns, and solutions that serve as tools to augment products, and not to govern them.

These first three principles are guiding beliefs that teams can use to inform the decisions they make for the design system they create and use. Nathan’s remaining principles speak to collaboration and community in the management of a system, quality over quantity, and more.

READ: Principles of Design Systems by Nathan Curtis

WATCH: Design Systems from Project Done to Project Sustained with Nathan Curtis

2. Divinely-Inspired v. Emergent Design Principles

Simplified design principles like the ones Nathan mentions — Be Magical! Simplicity over Complexity! — are often handed down from team leaders and management and can feel almost divinely inspired, encompassing broad ideas. But those broad ideas lack real-world application because they are nonspecific, and teams haven’t been involved in the process of identifying them.

Design principles that are uncovered by teams in the course of their work through research and field tests are emerging ideas that have immediate applications. Teams can use these emerging principles to identify weaknesses in their process and improve them, to move good design into the realm of great design.

Emerging design principles guide future work, encourage debate and discussion, and ultimately move teams toward agreement because the ideas are rooted in the work. Teams can use these principles to evolve design decisions. And because they are emerging, these principles fade away over time as teams address them and move on to the next level of emerging principles to identify and improve upon in their work.

As Jared Spool wrote in his article on the subject, “When a team tries to improve a poor design, the principles become easy to identify. If their current design is unusable, they fix it until it becomes usable. If the design frustrates users, they redesign it until the design is no longer frustrating. The team doesn’t need more nuanced principles than that, because it’s easy to see how to resolve issues by watching the users.”

READ: Emergent Principles: A Rebel Leader’s Secret to Better Team Design Decisions by Jared Spool

3. Work Smarter And Faster Using Design Principles and Systems

When Designer Dan Mall works with clients to develop Design Systems, he begins with team interviews to get a sense of how they work, how the system will be used (who will use it most) and what the unique needs and characteristics of the organization are.

He then moves into developing a pilot version of the system to test how it fits within the team and their workflow. He begins by working with teams to take an inventory of all of the applications they’ve created. He uses this inventory to define components that can be reused. The pilot system is a small library of reusable components that can be tested with teams as they build new products.

As Dan emphasizes, and echoes Nathan Curtis, a design system should be treated and managed as a product within an organization that serves other products. Design Systems help teams design better and eliminate redundancy in their work:

“A design system should be a good tool in your arsenal for you to be able to design better. And eliminate some of the useless decisions that you might have to make otherwise,” says Dan in an interview published on the UXPin blog.

In the same interview, Dan shares a story of another client who conducted an inventory of all of the websites produced by their organization and used that inventory to show management the glaring inconsistencies that existed across experiences, the lack of efficiency in the way teams worked, and the financial burden this lack of alignment creates. The exercise made the case for developing a design system by showcasing the pain of what it looks like to not have one.

Dan has spoken with us before about methods that designers can use to work more efficiently.

WATCH: On Design Systems: Dan Mall of Superfriendly

Happy October!



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