How to craft the perfect design principles for your project

Whether designing complex apps, software or websites — any digital service or product profits when you adhere to very specific experience design principles. This may sound rigid — but while helping you to separate minor from major issues and giving you a firm grip on the design process, design principles also provide your team with tons of inspiration. Design principles help you to make critical design decisions and in the end to produce designs that users love.

Design principles are the guiding phrases that describe the fundamental objectives of a design project. They describe how you want the end product to be perceived by the users and how you want users to feel about the experience. Creating these principles, before you start designing, is not only great fun; It’s the brilliant kick off for your project and a great way to get to know the team and the project’s scope. Always being able to refer to and fall back on these principles, will help you to efficiently move through the complete development process of a digital service or product.

The value of design principles

Design principles:

  • provide a shared understanding of the chosen direction;
  • offer focus to the team;
  • and provide a manual for further development.

Shared understanding

Design principles help to consequently align all stakeholders in the design process. They should be easy to understand by the team and all stakeholders; from designers to developers and management. Although short and to the point, design principles should be quite specific. The design principles have to make very sure there can be no misunderstandings about the design project’s purpose. It should always be easy for everyone involved to independently elaborate upon the principles, to explain the why and to give examples — in more or less the same way. As such, they can also serve as an important part of the product’s elevator pitch and help you sell your ideas.

Focus to the team

Constantly checking new ideas, new features and designs against the carefully thought out design principles, makes designers smarter and better informed. It ensures that the team (the product development team ideally being a clever mix of product owners, designers and developers complemented with copywriters and maybe even important stakeholders in marketing and sales) stays on track and keeps focus throughout the complete process. This focus not only leads to an efficient use of time and resources, it leads to a consistent user experience of the product you are developing. Each pixel and every piece of code can be traced back to the design principles. That is why design principles need to be critical, they need to help you to distinguish great design choices from really bad ones.

Manual for further development

All design principles are equal. During the development of your product, you might find that one principle is still underexposed. Prioritize this principle when adding a new feature. Are all the fundamental objectives covered? Then it is time to look beyond. Maybe you need to come up with another objective (or design principle) for your product or this could very well be the starting point for a completely new product.

How to craft the perfect design principles

1. Research

Employ all your research skills and available data. Your research should focus on:

  • The user — get to know his specific needs. Organize user workshops, conduct interviews or at least take in existing user surveys and analytics;
  • Product identity — what is the status here? Maybe you should also start thinking about the Product Design Personality;
  • Business goals, strategy & politics — make sure you know all the stakeholders you are dealing with and know their goals, needs and concerns;
  • Functional & technical demands.

2. Brainstorm

Gather the complete team, discuss the research and have a brainstorm on the design principles that would fit the product or service you are developing.

3. Make them almost perfect

Tweak and refine until they are short, specific, easy to understand and easy to memorize. Check carefully whether different principles do not conflict with one another and see to it that they can be uphold for the product or service as a whole, cross feature. And, although they are imperatives, make sure they are inspiring rather than prescriptive. If you are still unsure, here are 6 counter-intuitive tests by Jared Spool to check whether you have nailed it:

If a principle passes every test, it’s a great design principle — one that will likely guide the design team to produce designs their users love. — Jared Spool

4. Check with all stakeholders

Make sure all stakeholders are as enthusiastic as you are. Since you must be able to trace back each pixel and every piece of code to the design principles, since every decision is based on these principles, you have to be very sure of this. It will avoid an awful lot of trouble.

5. Make them perfect

Make them visual and glue them to your wall.

6. Let them grow and mature over time

Especially with long term projects, it is very possible that you need to revisit your design principles — new insights might lead to different or new principles.

Examples of design principles

HTC Hero — Facebook — Google Glass — Android

Suggested reading on design principles

Design Thinking | Employing Design Principles | Defining Ease of Use by Janet M. Six on UXmatters.

Good luck!