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Design Principles: Finding Them, Writing Them and Living Up to Them

7 min read

About the User-Centric Mindsets series:
Product Design and the people behind it are the bread and butter to great user experiences for your organization. With this series, we’re digging into UX Design with none other than our own Usabilla Product Designer Gal Agmon. Sit tight as we dive into everything from accessibility in feedback forms to creating the right design principles.

This is part 4 of the User-Centric Mindsets Series (read part 1, 2 and 3).

As a user feedback company, UX runs through our veins. Lucky for me as a Product Designer, Usabilla is committed to delivering great user experiences.

It isn’t easy to make UX design the core of an organization and fully embed it in every decision. We needed backup from every team to fight for the plight of the user and ensure they are in the driver’s seat at every step of the digital experience.

As Usabilla grew, scaling up also meant scaling up our design team. Therefore, we needed a set of design principles to guide conscious decision making amongst a wide variety of stakeholders, ensuring a consistent and future-proof product.

A strong set of design principles leads to…

  1. More meaningful discussions within the design team, where decisions can be made with confidence and measured by agreed upon principles
  2. Backup for UX decisions to present to the business and commercial departments, rather than fighting for budget and resources based on ungrounded arguments

Design principles can take a company from committed to UX to engaged and maybe even embedded in UX, as shown in the maturity model below.

When should you create design principles?

While you may feel there is never extra time to focus on design principles, doing so will save you time down the road. At Usabilla, the process to define design principles started long ago but was parked due to team changes. Only once the new team was set and we worked hard to get a holistic view of our goals, could we pick it up again.

At that sweet spot, our principles were finalized before we knew it, in just three weeks. With clear goals, hard decisions suddenly become so obvious.

What does this mean? If your product vision is not clear, team not unified enough or you are missing some common understanding about the users or the product goal, it’s not the time for design principles just yet.

What are the steps to reaching your design principles?

  1. Explore the scenarios where you needed the guidance of design principles

In a simple brainstorming and clustering session, we all raised the situations, discussions and decisions that would have benefited from a strong set of design principles. Then, we identified the main topics we were all struggling with.

For instance, someone from the team, might run into this scenario: “I keep getting requests to add templates. Do we want to invest time in that or should we let the users do what they want?”

2. Define clusters and list the extremes

We then identified a list of topics pertaining to our customers’ experience using our product: guidance, personalization, product usage, client involvement, style and interaction, data, communication and growth. Then, for every topic, we listed the two extreme directions a user could experience for each.

Here is a way we listed the extremes for every topic. For the topic of “guidance,” we came up with two extremes:

  • dummy-proof – without further assistance everybody can use Usabilla
  • requires expertise – collecting and analyzing user feedback via Usabilla is a task suitable for knowledgeable experts

Even if you don’t see yourself coming toward one of these extremes, it helps to get a broader view of where your principle could potentially move towards.

3. Send an internal survey to the entire organization to validate possible solutions

We gave a 4-point rating scale for each topic so the participants had to pick a clear side because in most cases people opt for a neutral stance, which wouldn’t help us reach a clear decision. For instance in terms of ‘guidance,’ you either want an experience that’s dummy-proof or one that requires expertise. Looking at these two extremes, we could really spot the trends.

We gathered and analyzed the results – not to reach final answers – but rather to better understand which direction the “wind” was generally blowing. We then identified and prioritized the most burning topics and the underlying concern they were covering. From there, we decided on five main topics to address, all wrapped up as our design principles.

4. Learn from the industry to fine tune

We took a closer look at the industry and other design principles to identify what we liked and didn’t like in the examples, and we decided:

Our design principles should be usable, tangible and company-specific.

What examples inspired us?

We explored a variety of principles, including this great list from Medium. We particularly liked Bing’s design principles as they were simple and clear. Google’s materials were inspiring and they set a clear tone of voice. Most of all we loved Airbnb’s company-specific approach, making sure their principles were relevant to their mission.

5. Present your ideas to your organization

We wrote down a version we all agreed on based on the guidelines we set, and we presented them to key stakeholders like Management, Product and Developers to get feedback, buy-in and approval.

6. Enlist marketing to spread the message

We then turned to the help of our friends on the marketing team to ensure our message was clear to us and to the world. Together, we settled on catchy and playful titles plus sharp and precise explanations to always refer to. The result? We created something to feel proud to hang alongside our UX personas around the office walls.

What are our design principles?

There for you

From novice to expert, our solution’s UX guides our customers to become truly customer-centric.

If a Customer Success Manager at Usabilla were to ask, “Why did you choose to visualize this metric in this way?”…this is a scenario where our UX team could answer with a design principle.

Smart presets and great flexibility

Our solution works out of the box, yet is easy to adapt to the customer’s workflow and goals.

If a Product Owner at Usabilla were to ask, “Why can’t we give the user an open stage and let them use Usabilla in any way they want?”…this is a scenario where our UX team could answer with a design principle.

Serious with a spark

Working with our solution is efficient and clear, yet delightful.

We could answer with this design principle in a scenario where a Developer at Usabilla might ask, “Why should I spend time on this animation?”

Design for tomorrow

Together with our customers, we look ahead to come up with ideas that support their future use cases and scenarios.

If the CEO at Usabilla were to ask, “Why do we need a whole concept team to take the time to think about voice assistants?”…we could answer with this principle for instance.

Working together

Our solution integrates well within the customer’s workflow and other solutions in their product suite.

If a Designer at Usabilla were to ask, “Why should we integrate our product with other solutions?”…we could answer with this principle.

What now? Any tricks to ensure you live up to these principles?

After sharing your design principles with key stakeholders, all you have to do is share them with the rest of the company and with your customers. By hanging them on the walls of the office, you can always have a present and strong guideline for your decisions, saving time and creating efficiencies in the design process.

So spread the word. Educate your organization to become more design-centric at every level with a strong set of design principles that you can always count on.

Curious to read more blogs in the User-Centric Mindsets Series? Click below.

This is part 4 of the User-Centric Mindsets Series (read part 1, 2 and 3).

User-Centric Mindsets