Defining Principles to Drive Design Decisions

There’s a standing joke here at Salesforce… Whenever someone in the product organization presents a list — and it could be a list of anything: features, research strategies, Dreamforce t-shirt colors, really anything — someone will always ask,

“Is that list in priority order?”

Sometimes the question will be asked seriously; sometimes it’s tongue-in-cheek. But believe me, you don’t want to be the rookie in front of the room leading execs through an unprioritized list.

While we joke about it, our commitment to prioritization serves us well. It’s powerful — powerful because the things we could do are limitless, but the things we will do are finite. Clear lists guide teams. They represent tough decisions. They are, as Scott Berkun puts it, “the backbone of progress.”

So naturally, as we defined our principles to guide the design of Salesforce Lightning we stack-ranked them. Because… well, that’s what we do here. And giving our principles a clear order has made all the difference.

The Journey

Lightning is our new user experience at Salesforce. It’s a re-imagining of our platform, designed to maximize productivity, while being extensible by our customers and partners. In the process we created the Salesforce Lightning Design System — a living style guide that codifies and demonstrates how components are constructed and used.

Examples of the Salesforce Lightning Experience across form factors.

But we didn’t start at the end, of course. Lightning has been years in the making. We started where design always starts, at the messy beginning.

We talked to customers. We collected use cases and sketched out workflows. We collaborated with product and engineering on wireframes. We did all the things that a design organization does to move the process forward. There were disagreements, sure, but there was steady progress.

However, as we began to add fidelity to the mockups and flows, something unexpected happened. How many of you remember this from Sesame Street?

One of these things is not like the other… Three are tools and the other is a shoe. Or is it that three have handles and the other does not? Same answer, different rationale.

It’s the game where you show 4 items, sing a song, and then point out which one is different and explain why. It’s a pretty fun game all things considered. Unfortunately, the same scenario was beginning to play out when discussing our higher fidelity designs.

“Hey, this thing is not like that thing, won’t it be confusing to users?”

This bothered us as designers. Pointing out inconsistencies is easy, figuring out the right thing is hard. Even if we eliminated all the inconsistencies at this nascent stage, how could we be assured that we had really solved the problem? It became clear that we lacked a framework for up-leveling and accelerating the discussion. We needed a way for everyone in the room to grok the intention, so we could align on the path forward. We needed prioritized principles to guide our communication and decision making.

Arriving at Principles

The hunt was on. We collected concepts and ideas that we knew were important to our customers, our product, and ourselves as designers.

Out of this list we were able to aggregate four core principles that captured how we wanted to shape our design thinking, and subsequently critique a design’s merits. Here they are:

Eliminate ambiguity. Enable people to see, understand, and act with confidence.

Streamline and optimize workflows. Intelligently anticipate needs to help people work better, smarter, and faster.

Create familiarity and strengthen intuition by applying the same solution to the same problem.

Demonstrate respect for people’s time and attention through thoughtful and elegant craftsmanship.

Determining the order

Now that we had principles to express our goals for the product, we wanted to stack rank them. Would we promote beauty over clarity? Consistency over efficiency? We did a thought experiment — what would happen if we took each principle to the extreme and at the expense of the others? How would it sort out? Here were our thoughts.

Clarity struck us as being core to the experience. Users needed clarity to complete their tasks and reach their goals. If we could ensure that users successfully reached their goals over and over, then we could earn their trust, loyalty, and gratitude. We put it first.

Efficiency is a word we heard repeatedly when talking to our customers. We nearly ranked it at the top. But as we considered doubling down on efficiency we noticed drawbacks. A command line can be great for an expert user but opaque for a novice. If we took efficiency to the extreme, we anticipated that a chunk of our users would be overwhelmed. They’d be apt to make mistakes along the way and mistakes are costly. We put it second.

Consistency is important for building a user’s intuition over time and for designers to follow established patterns. But if we made consistency the most important thing, how would the system evolve? Where was the opportunity for innovation? What if something was consistently not great? We put it third.

Beauty, while important to us as designers, was not the defining characteristic of the product. In the domain of work, it’s about getting things done. What if a design was beautiful but tedious? What if it looked amazing but the mechanics were hard to remember? Beauty is a great attractor and can inspire love of a product, but it didn’t make sense for us to promote it above all else. We put it fourth.

In practice

We started to use these principles when discussing designs amongst ourselves. When creating designs, we’d consciously remind ourselves that the experiences we were creating should be clear, efficient, consistent, and beautiful. When reviewing design options, we’d run it through the same gauntlet. With practice, it became easier to rationalize a decision and pick a path forward. We used the same methodology when discussing the design with other members of the organization. Interactions with our peers improved, we now had a framework for facilitating the conversation.

Aligning around prioritized principles has not only helped the UX team shape and describe its work — it’s starting to spread throughout the organization. Folks from marketing are incorporating it into their messaging, and product managers are using it with UX to align on roadmap decisions.

Our goal as designers is to elegantly weave these principles together when creating products. When we succeed at their effective interplay; we gain love from our users for what we do.

And that’s good business.