How our new design principles have shaped the way we work at Domain

For those of you who don’t know Domain, we’re Australia’s #1 property app. Our purpose is to inform, inspire and connect people throughout the property lifecycle. We inform people through our trusted content, our data and our insights about property. We inspire people by the way we present property, and through information and ideas in our content. Fundamentally our business is a platform that creates connections; between buyers and sellers, landlords and tenants, and consumers with a range of services related to property.

I’m a Senior Designer in the Product Design team at Domain and we’re tasked with delivering the above and imagining what’s possible in the world of property.

Recently we decided we needed to codify some design principles. Importantly we didn’t want principles that were just lip service, we wanted ones that would result in a better design culture, better design outcomes and ultimately a better experience for our users.


Why do we need design principles anyway?

Our team has more than 80 years of experience, we’ve got this Design thing sorted. We don’t need to have some silly rules stuck on the wall that we’ll ignore…

Product design is continually evolving and by no means an easy job. We’re always looking for ways to improve ourselves as designers and as a team. So we spent some time analysing our culture, processes and end products.

Lo and behold we discovered we’re not perfect! <gasp!> We’re great at a lot of things, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. So we wanted to make some changes.

Design principles define a way of working, they embody a positive behaviour that is desired by a design team. They support the vision, shape the culture and reflect what the team values.

Establishing strong principles provides both internal and external advantages:

  • They help in the decision-making processes. For example, if one of your core values is to stand behind the quality of your products, any products that don’t reach the standard are automatically eliminated.
  • They educate stakeholders about what the team values and communicate the identity of the team.
  • They give your team members a reason for what they do. Feeling aligned with a team’s values, mission and philosophy is one of the top reasons employees love where they work.
  • Most importantly, they drive behavioural change.

By developing some for our team, we hoped to drive the changes needed for us to improve and evolve as a team, and as individuals.

So, what should those principles be?


Design principles can be categorised into three groups:

1. Autonomic

These are the fundamental design principles we all learnt as budding designers:

  • Alignment.
  • Hierarchy.
  • Contrast.
  • Repetition.
  • Proximity.
  • Balance.
  • Colour.
  • Space.

A bit like the autonomic nervous system (which regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate and digestion), we do these unconsciously. We don’t need these to be regularly reinforced.

2. Subconscious

Subconscious principles guide the way we design, like:

  • Simple
  • Self-explanatory
  • Looks good

Principles like this might as well be meaningless and won’t drive new behaviour. They are too broad and obvious. I doubt anyone is going to question these:

Actually, I’d rather our designs be complex, need an instruction manual, and look like shit, thankyouverymuch.

3. Active

Active principles drive new behaviour and challenge us to be better. They don’t come as naturally to us as those above, and they need active reinforcement and participation to get the desired results.


We didn’t want some pithy statements on the wall that we’d look at for a week, then promptly ignore. We wanted active principles that would effect real change.


So, how did we come up with them?

The workshop

We went pretty lean with our process and ran one short exercise to develop our principles.

Reverse Thinking: We spent 10 minutes coming up with the worst possible design principles we could think of. Ones that would guarantee shit designs and an even shittier team. As you can imagine, this produced some pretty amusing and terrible responses:

We then passed those to the person on our left, who then had 10 minutes to rework them into good ones. This gave us a list of potential principles to choose from.

Synthesis

We began to cluster these into themes, filtering out ideas that could be considered table stakes or inappropriate for us. We could then decide on which ones would drive the right behaviours.

After a round of Dot Voting, six ideas progressed to the final stage.

The construct

We distilled those six ideas into simple statements that were memorable and actionable. We noticed that they fell into 2 distinct groups; Questions We Ask Ourselves When Designing and Things We Always Do.


The principles

<drumroll>

1. What Am I Solving?

Effective designers are, at their core, great problem solvers. When kicking off a project it is up to us to first define the problem we are solving. If we don’t understand what problem we are solving, how can we expect to design an effective solution to it?

2. Do I Need This____?

This is a question we should be asking ourselves at every stage of the design process.

Is this feature something the user wants or needs?
Will this element improve usability?
Does this help or hinder the user experience?
Will the design still work without this element?
Do I need this____?

We want designs that consist of everything the users need and nothing they don’t. By constantly asking ourselves whether a bit of functionality or a design element is necessary, we are working towards that ideal.

3. Where Is The Love?

We are sometimes guilty of taking Minimum Viable Product to its extreme — stripping a product of everything loveable in the name of shipping fast.

We want our users to love using our products, so we need to make sure that we deliver loveable products. Meet the Minimum Loveable Product.

© Laurence McCahill

I urge you to read Laurence McCahill’s article about MLP, it’s old but still gold.

© Laurence McCahill

Now sing it with me…

4. Be Inquisitive.

We’re not going to blindly say Yes to every brief without considering all the possibilities. We feel it’s our job, nay our duty, to take the brief apart, ask bolder, deeper questions and interrogate assumptions.

5. Go For A Walk, Have A Talk.

We need to get our heads out of email/Slack and go have a face-to-face talk with someone. Better communication will solve most issues and a face-to-face conversation always beats a digital one (sorry Slack, we still ❤️️ you!).

6. Treat Every Day Like Day One.

Yeah, we’ve shamelessly stolen this from Jeff Bezos, but it’s such a great attitude we don’t feel too bad about it.

Remember how you felt on the first day of your job? Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I’m guessing, ready to take on the world. In time that feeling fades, we become more cynical, stuck in our ways of doing things and less engaged.

We want to get back to that first day. We want to look at things with fresh eyes and optimism. We don’t do something just because it’s the way it’s always been done, and we are always hungry for new information, never resting on our laurels.


These six principles reinforce the behaviours that will deliver the most value for us right now. Yours will probably be different and that’s ok. We’re not trying to define principles for every designer out there, we want ones that work for us.

Visualisation

We designed one poster each, no creative theme, no restrictions apart from poster size. We rarely get a completely open brief so it was nice to cut loose a bit!

Some initial sketches and working files

After a few iterations, we ended up with a pretty diverse range of aesthetic approaches; abstraction, minimalism, illustrative, a bit of Swiss and typographical.

Mine’s the one hung at 45°, always have to be different…

We’re stoked with the results. They’ve attracted a lot of attention from our colleagues and initiated a lot more open discussions about design and how we work.


Activation

Principles can look great on paper and on the wall, but to truly make a difference they’ve got to go further. That means acting on them daily, holding yourself and your team accountable to them, even hiring with them in mind.

Our bi-weekly team catchup (LAB) is themed around one of them. During these, we run an activity or exercise which activates the desired behaviour.

So far this has been pretty successful in reinforcing the principles day-to-day; they are now a part of our team vocabulary and are weaved directly into the fabric of our design process.

Here are a few examples of activities we’ve run so far:

Destroy The World (What Am I Solving?)

We split into teams of two and this was our brief:

How Would You Destroy The World?

We had 30 minutes to develop an idea, then present that back to the group.

Eradicating humanity may come across as a dark subject. And it was. Yet, it managed to shed light on two key words — ‘what’, and ‘why’. A fun and brilliant exercise that delves into everyone’s dark side with a positive light at the end. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
— David Meier

The aim of the exercise was to get us to deep dive into the brief. First, we had to determine what ‘destroying the world’ actually meant? End of civilisation as we know it, human extinction, kill all life on earth, actually blowing up the planet? It was up to us to define that for ourselves, then brainstorm ideas to actually achieve it. Analysing the feasibility of each idea (time, economics, logistics, the likelihood of success etc.) was a key task to complete.

David Meier and Shruthi presenting their idea, which involved bee genocide. Lovely.

The presentations were equal parts thought-provoking, entertaining and a bit worrying. Apparently, we have some very dark minds in our team. 😱

Kaya Lee and Carmen Lu presenting their four-pronged attack; destroying the world biologically, emotionally, intellectually and economically. I’ve got my eye on these two, this was some next-level Bond Villain shit.

The exercise forced us to not take the brief at face value. We had to go deeper, interrogating it at a forensic level to determine exactly what we were trying to solve. Then solve it of course.

Needless to say, none of us should be put in charge of any WMDs, killer viruses or even bee hives.

Domain…On A Watch! (Do I Need This____?)

We speculated what Domain might look like on a Pebble smartwatch. The tiny B&W low-res screen and limited functionality forced us to really think about what the user needed or wanted. We had to think about the context, set the functionality and design hierarchy, then design an interface that would enrich their lives.

“This was an interesting and challenging little session around reduction. It made us question and think about the core purpose of every element and forced us to quickly make hard decisions since we were designing on such a small screen.”
— Jeffrey Mok

What Is Love? (Where Is The Love?)

This activity was a bit different to the rest. First, we needed to define what Love actually meant for us at Domain. Then develop a plan for introducing the concept of Minimum Loveable Products (MLP) to the wider team. We have control over the design phase, but it’s at the scoping phase where a lot of love gets sucked out of a product.

It’s really important for our Product Managers (and Engineering of course) to be on board with MLP. We can then ensure that the love isn’t forgotten at any stage of the Product Development process.

Defining Love. We ran a quick brainstorm to try and define ‘Love’ within the context of Domain. What does that mean for our products and our users?

MLP vs. MVP. We then came up with a simple strategy to socialise the concept of MLP and roll it out across Product and Technology.

What’s next? Build some fucking loveable products!

All together now…

Scavenger Hunt (Go For A Walk, Have A Talk)

GFAWHAT 🙃 is all about face-to-face interaction. Getting our heads out of Slack, standing up, walking over and talking to someone. I’m not saying we’re reclusive hermits who never leave our desks, but it was something we could definitely do more of.

To activate this idea we ran a mini-scavenger hunt around the office. We each had a list of personal questions that we had to ask our colleagues. Twenty minutes, 20 people, the game was afoot.

It’s a great exercise in the value of direct physical communication within a team and across other teams. Sometimes we miss the most obvious way of asking for something when we have stuff like Slack, Invision, etc. as part of our workflow.
— Joseph Alcantara

This was a winner. It was a great opportunity to learn a bit more about our colleagues and even meet some new people. Getting a bit active is never a bad thing either.

“Doing the scavenger hunt was really helpful in getting to know other members of the team I would not have necessarily spoken to.”
— Kate Mack

Surprisingly our colleagues enjoyed the game as much as we did! Who knew that people enjoyed a bit of social interaction? 🤦

We are currently designing a similar hunt for our on-boarding process. It’s an ultra-quick way for our new starters to meet new people, learn about the business, and discover our lovely office.

Conclusion

So far, so good! The design principles have attracted a lot of positive attention from our colleagues while the activation activities are having a positive effect on our team culture, design processes and final output. Most importantly we’re receiving positive feedback from other teams that we can attribute back to the principles.

Our work is not done though:

  • We’re continuing to activate the principles in new and inventive ways, and learning from previous activities to develop better ones.
  • We have started a monthly retrospective process to ensure we are living up to our principles and designing in the best possible way.
  • And we now review our designs through the lens of our principles, if they don’t stack up we go back to the drawing board.

This isn’t a challenging process. It’s fast, effective and free! A short workshop was all it took for us and we’re seeing real, tangible results:

  • We’re not saying Yes to briefs without doing our due diligence. We’re beginning to ask the right questions early in the process, ensuring we’re solving the right problem and designing it in the best possible way.
  • We’re delivering more effective solutions. We weren’t delivering completely ineffective solutions before of course, but due to the more detailed work upfront in our design process our end products are solving users problems in more intelligent and effective ways.
  • We’re delivering more efficient and focused designs that meet the users needs, without the fluff. Stripping our designs back to the bare minimum, keeping the love of course, reduces the visual weight of our layouts and more importantly reduces the users cognitive load, making it easier for them to get the information they need and do what they need to do.
  • Love is in the air at Domain and becoming part of our vernacular.
  • The collaboration between us, Product, Tech, Marketing and Sales has come on leaps and bounds. It’s having a huge impact on the end products.
  • “We can’t do that because…” “We tried that before and…” “They’ll never go for it…” and so many more creativity killing phrases have been banned and this means we are more open to ideas (even bad ones) than ever before.

If you don’t have any principles or values yet for your team or company, give it a go, you’ll be surprised how much of a difference they can make.

Thanks for making it all the way to the end, I hope you found it interesting. It’s the first article I’ve ever written, please be gentle in the comments 😉. Any feedback is most welcome though.

I’m Jon and I’m a Senior Product Designer at Domain, imagining what’s possible in the world of Property. Hit me up on LinkedIn or say hi on Twitter.

Thanks to my fellow designers David Meier, Joseph Alcantara , Jeffrey Mok, Carmen Lu and Kate Mack for being the best bloody team in the world, and our amazing Editorial Director Toby Johnstone for his inspiration and help with my wonky writing. ❤️