High product standards begin with strong design principles

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Principles

When you’ve been in product design for the better part of a decade, your guiding principles are like second nature. But documenting them is what makes them visible to colleagues and valuable to your company.

Until recently, the product design team at Learnosity didn’t have a defined set of design principles. Sounds strange now I say it, but with the accumulated knowledge on the team, our principles had just become an enshrined part of our day-to-day process. Sharing the drivers of our design practice with the wider team had simply never entered the conversation.

But that all changed while chatting idly to a newly hired product owner. 

After shooting the breeze about the design team’s work and practice, she asked if they could take a look at our core design principles. My response was like something a a new-age guru or secret service agent might say: “Yeah we have them, but you won’t find them written down anywhere.”

“The answer lies within” is not an effective product design principle.

The exchange was discomfiting because it revealed a problem that could have serious knock-on effects. 

For one thing, if expertise of any kind is internalized, it’s siloed by default. And the danger with siloed information is that it not only lives with individuals, it leaves with them too, should they choose to move on.

Locking knowledge away like this is also contrary to our core values at Learnosity, which espouse collaboration (“Live to learn/Success is better shared”) and progress (“Aim higher”). To create a transparent work culture where everyone is rowing in the same direction you need to make knowledge and expertise available at all times. How can a company continue to evolve if guessing games are a surrogate for guidance?

Why design principles matter

The most-common misconception of design is that it exists solely to make stuff look good. A more sophisticated take is that design is most effective when fully integrated into a company’s overall product development strategy. It uses research to develop a deep understanding of users’ needs and employs creative problem-solving to try meet them.

"If expertise of any kind is internalized, it’s siloed by default. And the danger with siloed information is that it not only lives with individuals, it leaves with them too." Click To Tweet

It’s no coincidence that the likes of Apple, Airbnb, Google, Zendesk, and IBM all give design a seat at the head table. Industry trendsetters employ design as a powerful differentiator. As InVision’s expansive “The New Design Frontier” report reveals, companies that invest in design tend to enjoy significant advantages over those who don’t:

“Companies with high design maturity in our model are more likely to see cost savings, revenue gains, productivity gains, speed to market, and brand and market position improvements through their design efforts.”

Source: The New Design Frontier, by InVision.

But it’s also important to recognize that design maturity is less a final destination than it is an ongoing process that only thrives when it has clear principles to navigate by.

If strong enough, those core principles can bring about positive outcomes in vital areas:

  • They help “codify mistakes”, repeat successes, and take the guesswork out of the design process (as discussed on the Intercom podcast).
  • They ensure design cohesion and fidelity by keeping everyone on the same page – even as teams grow or change over time.
  • They keep teams honest, on track, and answerable to one another if standards slip.
  • They establish clear user expectations by ensuring a coherent and consistent user experience.
  • They simplify the decision-making process when faced with difficult UX or UI choices.
  • They play a major role in maturing the craft of product design.

Identifying our principles

To expand on that last point a little – product design doesn’t just magically mature once you’ve put some principles in place. It begins to mature before then, during the very process of developing those core principles in the first place.

We kicked our own process off with some cross-industry research on how other companies approached things. This was purely illustrative for us since there is no “off the shelf” set of principles you can just take and run with; each company’s design principles should be unique to them because the problems they solve are unique. Still, there’s bound to be points of convergence you can use as a springboard.

Following this initial information-gathering phase, we began work-shopping using an “everything on the wall” approach. Basically, this involved getting the entire design team together to sound out thoughts and suggestions based on our individual experiences across a range of projects.

"Product design doesn’t just magically mature once you’ve put some principles in place. It begins to mature before then, during the very process of developing those core principles in the first place." Click To Tweet

We followed this up by merging overlapping points into single overarching principles.

While we didn’t have a set number of principles in mind, we wanted to avoid over-complicating the project. Simplicity was key in getting other teams to buy into what we were doing and seeing the value in it. To keep on track, we conducted follow-up workshops and Q&A sessions with developers, product owners, and managers.

After some further tweaks and refinements, we finally settled on seven design principles that we were confident could serve as the foundation of our product design efforts.

Learnosity’s 7 principles of product design

  1. Be obvious and clear
    Design for clarity and ease of use. Make sure available actions are intuitive.
  2. Be collaborative
    Listen, understand, and arrive at outcomes together. Defining problems and designing solutions is more effective when we include different perspectives. Share knowledge and learnings to strengthen our expertise as a company and work better together as teams.
  3. Know our users
    Listen and understand to get to know our users and why they do what they do. Putting the user’s goals at the center of what we do allows us to build and design products that solve real problems. Use real feedback to build a complete picture.
  4. Be inclusive and considerate of users with different abilities
    Value the importance of creating accessible products for a diverse range of abilities from the start. Periodically consult with accessibility experts in the business and follow recommendations for product updates where necessary.
  5. Follow existing patterns and behaviors
    Design a part to fit into a system. Strive for consistency. Think of the experience holistically and not as a single focus.
  6. Be flexible and extensible
    Provide a well-tested and researched foundation that is flexible to empower our clients to achieve their goals – always considering the environments where our products will integrate and aiming for a seamless experience.
  7. Guide the user
    Design to be helpful. Know when to assist and provide appropriate feedback or guidance to prevent error.
"Defining problems and designing solutions is more effective when we include different perspectives." Click To Tweet

Designed to evolve

Like anyone else, we use a ton of apps, software, tools, and documentation in our everyday lives and feel the same frustrations whenever we encounter a poor user experience.

Establishing a core set of design principles was our way of making sure that Learnosity’s products always offer a high-quality user experience even as our technology evolves.

Over time, we expect our principles will develop too. I hope this piece sheds some light on how we worked to raise our design standards at Learnosity in both our day-to-day and in the days (and years) to come.

Andy Warboys

Design Lead

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