designDesign principles are a simple set of guidelines that can be referenced throughout your project for making decisions when there are multiple ways of designing a system to achieve the same outcome.

A few examples may be:

  • Present summary first, then drill down to details
  • Auditability is more important than performance
  • Don’t have one workflow item after another for the same user – combine steps into the same workflow item

Each principle should be simple, memorable and help make decisions.

How will this help me?

Imagine you’re sitting in a workshop with business stakeholders trying to go through your final set of requirements for approval when someone makes a comment about changing a screen design. This particular screen design may have been discussed for hours in previous workshops, status meetings and in the workplace kitchen, and every time someone sees it, they want to change it.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could point to a set of signed off design principles and say ‘The way the screen is currently laid out satisfies design principles 2 and 5; if we change it we are deviating from these principles that ensure consistency and a good user experience.’?

Another situation that often occurs in large organisations on projects where a solution is built up over multiple business workshops, for example on a process improvement project, is that during each workshop the loudest voice on the day prevails. This can result in inconsistencies between different parts of the solution, and a sub-optimal user experience at the end. Having design principles provides guidance for the many decisions that need to be made in these types of sessions and ensures consistency in the solution when there are multiple ways of doing things.

How to write design principles

Ok, so you’re convinced and you want to develop a great set of design principles to set your project up for success. This is not an easy task and may require a lot of discussion and re-writing of the design principles to get them agreed.

One of the fastest ways of doing this is to run a brainstorming session with your key stakeholders. Make sure you figure out who the right attendees are and confirm that they’re able to attend. During the session you can explain the purpose, give each person a stack of post-it notes and ask them to write down the three most important design principles on their own. This could even be done as pre-work prior to the session.

Put all the ideas up on the whiteboard and spend a bit of time discussing each one. Group discussion will throw up more ideas. Then you can start narrowing down the list to arrive at a smaller set of the 5-10 most important design principles.

Alternatively you can draft your own based on experience or advice from SMEs and circulate these for approval.

If you are building an entirely new product and design is a major part of the project, user research can be invaluable. User research is you go out to your users and find out what’s important to them. This could be by conducting interviews, demonstrating prototypes, giving users a task and observing how they perform it in your system, or observing users perform tasks in other products that exist in the market which your future customers are using. Some companies even have specific roles for researchers that do this continuously to provide data for other projects within the company.

What to aim for when composing your design principles

Here are a few points to keep in mind as you go:

  • Make sure your design principles help make decisions
  • Don’t make them too fluffy, otherwise they won’t be useful
  • Design principles can come from user research
  • Design principles can come from technical needs
  • Design principles can come from business/head office needs

Have you seen design principles applied effectively? Leave a comment!

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