How to Define Design Principles in Just One (or Two!) Sessions
As the content strategy lead on Wayfair’s Homebase Design System, I spend my time writing and maintaining usage guidelines, tweaking our component taxonomy, writing voice and tone guides for different experiences, and compiling standards and best practices for both content and design.
Individually, those things have been going well. But last February, six months into my time as part of the Global Experience team, I felt like I was missing something. The system was rapidly expanding, and I was tasked with strategizing the messaging for how we talked about it across the organization.
(You can read about the huge team our design system serves in Jesse Kaddy’s article Anatomy of a Large Experience Design Organization.)
I wanted everyone’s voice to be a part of the conversation, so I held individual stakeholder interviews with key team members, asking questions like “What, in your own words, is the Homebase Design System? What should it be?”
The main takeaway from those conversations was that we had a lot of ideas, but we weren’t necessarily aligned on how they all fit together. So, after I reviewed the stakeholder interview findings with our core team, I organized a design principles workshop.
Here’s what we did:
The Quick Design Principles Workshop
- Have the right people in the room
We were able to include the whole team of six designers and content folks in our workshop, but you might need to cut to a core team to keep it productive and on time. Consider who will need to use the principles to make big decisions and who will be a good evangelist once the principles are set.
2. Set the agenda (1 minute)
This one is just a best practice for meetings – but it’s good to run through the agenda at the start of your workshop to set expectations.
3. Establish the purpose of creating design principles (5 minutes)
I wanted everyone in the room to understand the value of what we were about to do, so I made this poorly designed slide:
4. Define what design principles are and show examples (5 minutes)
Most people in the room were familiar with concept of design principles, but weren’t sure what they looked like in practice. I wanted 100% alignment on the goal of the workshop.
5. Explore existing artifacts that are close to design principles (10 minutes)
Wayfair is a big company, with different teams working on the core brand experience, marketing, visual design, and product design – each with their own brand pillars or guidelines. Additionally, within our product and design organization, many teams have vision statements or manifestos that capture their goals.
Since the Homebase Design System is meant to enable our teams to rapidly build products that adhere to brand guidelines and business goals (as well as user goals), it was important for us to review some of these materials.
Your organization may have brand pillars or your team may have its own vision statement — either way, it’s a good idea to review any existing artifacts that should influence your design principles.
6. Break out the post-its! (40 minutes)
It wouldn’t be a workshop without some rapid post-it writing. Here’s how you might want to plan your time:
5 minutes: Write some principles of design on post-its. (Include principles you think are not as important to your team.)
10 minutes: Each person individually places their post-its on the board, placing similar ideas near each other. Designate a space on the board for the principles you think are not as important.
15 minutes: Discuss! Continue to group similar principles. How small can you get your total number of post-it groups? As you start Designate a “top” post-it to represent each group.
(This where our team went way over on time. As the facilitator, I chose to keep the conversation going as it felt useful for the team at that time. We completed the rest of the workshop in a second session.)
10 minutes: Edit ruthlessly with the goal of landing on 3–5 principles that really speak to your team. Sticking to the allotted time can be helpful in forcing decisions. Combine groupings, arrange groups by priority, and consider moving more groups into “not as important” — work quickly and don’t overthink it.
And that’s it! We landed on three principles (see below). For us, it was the right amount to cover what we wanted to express while still being relatively easy to remember.
My next step was to collect all the post-its and draft statements about each principle. I used additional words each other post-its group to tell the full story of what the principle meant to us, and I referenced the “not important” post-its to make sure I was sticking to our priorities.
Homebase Design System Principles
We create each new component and maintain the existing library with the intent of producing better customer experiences. Building consistent and cohesive components to use across Wayfair platforms supports usability and learnability.
Customer needs are always changing and therefore our teams are always innovating in new and exciting directions. We encourage collaboration through sharing solutions and updating existing patterns in ways that are forward-thinking and scalable. The system is always evolving — and by design, strong enough to bend without breaking.
The building blocks of our experiences prioritize accessibility, usability, and a conversational approach across all platforms. We design for our users, and the system is built with their needs at the forefront — including opportunities to delight them with enjoyable shopping experiences.
Design principles in practice
Now that we have the principles in place, all of our previous problems have been solved.
Okay, not quite, but there have been some benefits.
First of all, our team was able to align around priorities. That discussion that was much longer than 15 minutes? We were hashing out what level of flexibility we wanted to build into our design system. We talked about how balancing that flexibility with intentional updates was the key to creating a cohesive system that all teams could adapt to their needs. And we emphasized that the system had to create the best experiences for our users, not just our stakeholders and partners.
Secondly, when creating criteria for contributions to the system, I looked back to these principles and drafted questions that would help ensure all updates to the system mapped to our priorities.
Does this change solve a new problem or fill a gap in existing component functionality?
Is this change consistent with existing standards for UI and content?
Can this change be tested for usability? Do you have a testing plan?
Is this change scalable across multiple experiences?
Will other teams benefit from this change?
Is this change supported by accessibility standards?
Does this change improve customer experience?
We’re also leaning into these principles as part of new onboarding initiatives, since they give a high-level view of what we hope to achieve with the design system as it grows.
So do we use our design principles every day? No. Do I expect them to change at some point in the future? Probably!
But overall, the exercise was really helpful for team alignment and for creating a framework for how to talk about the Homebase Design System.