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Making Design Principles Stick

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by Kate Rutter

December 1, 2009

Creating great experiences requires making choices that serve both users and the organization. And this means constantly making trade-offs. With so many possibilities and so many great ideas out there, it’s an ongoing challenge to make the choices and decisions necessary to design a coherent product experience.

So what tools are helpful in guiding decisions that will deliver a great product? One of the tools in the Adaptive Path tool belt is design principles. In this essay, we share what they are and how to keep them working for you as your product evolves.

Design principles in a nutshell

Design principles are short, insightful phrases that act as guiding lights and support the development of great product experiences. Design principles enable you to be true to your users and true to your strategy over the long term.

So what makes for good design principles? Effective design principles…

  • Inspire ideas
  • Translate to real-life situations
  • Help the team decide between options
  • Challenge the team to ask useful questions
  • Are specifc to this product
  • Make for special and unique experiences

One of the questions we ask when drafting them is “Can all these principles as a group be applied to other products that are out there?” If the answer is “yes”, then we keep pushing on them. A healthy handful of principles means that a fair share of them must be unique to the product you are designing.

What do they look like? Here are some examples from past projects:

  • Be a good web citizen. Open the doors of the product and encourage deep-linking, cross-posting and syndication.
  • Every page is a landing page. Every page is a doorway that leads you to interesting related information.
  • Offer people the simplest possible way to satisfy their needs. Make it clear and obvious what to do next.
  • Continually communicate change. Surface what’s going on under the covers and keep the users informed.
  • The more it’s used, the better it gets. The product gets to know you, adapts to your train of thought and surprises you with stuff that’s meaningful and interesting.
  • More than boxes on a screen. Leverage reminders, invitations, etc.
  • Wear it during sex. Make the product elegant, discreet and comfortable.

    To see how a set of these play together, you can check out the design principles from the Charmr project and from Smart.fm.

    We’ve found that an effective set of design principles helps teams find the right ideas and make the decisions needed to move forward with confidence.

    So we’ve got design principles…now what?

    Once the product is designed or the project is over, how do you keep the principles alive? What can design and product teams to do stay aligned with the principles for the future?

    We’ve been working with design principles for the past few years, and have some ideas about how these things behave in the wild. Below are 5 ways to keep design principles vibrant and working for you once the initial project has wrapped and the product shipped.

    5 ways to make design principles stick

    1. Make them visible.

      Write them down and put them somewhere you can easily get to them. No, seriously. Nothing is more frustrating than thinking “Now where did I put those design principles? They’re around here somewhere…” In the digisphere, losing track of things is par for the course. Don’t let them languish in a PowerPoint deck named _internal-project081102a-strategy-finalfinal2.ppt. Get those puppies out! Give them room to grow…put them in their own directory. Practice smart file naming, something like UX_Design_Principles_ProductName_2009.pdf. Put the file in a format that any computer can read. Be platform-agnostic and opportunistic.

      What’s better than keeping them digital? Keeping them digital and physical. Print them out and post them on the wall in the project room. Make framed desk signs for your design team. Make it a creative effort and design posters for them. Put them on business cards and give them to colleagues. Giving them physical form increases findability and makes them a part of everyday life.

      One client we worked with made large-scale posters…one for each principle, complete with graphics and made with a high production value. Why did this work? Their culture valued rich media and attention-grabbing headlines. Posters were a common way to foster cross-team communications. By capitalizing on an accepted means of promotion, the design principles gained much more visibility and awareness throughout the organization.
    2. Keep them fresh

      Design principles are like plants…they need exposure to light and some basic nutrients so that they stay fresh. If left dry too long, they get brown and crunchy. So keep them in a sunny spot and water them often.

      Start off every design review with them. Reinforce the knowledge in your team, and introduce them to new players. Keep them pruned. Do you have some principles that don’t feel right over time? Hold a short workshop and dig into why. What did you intend to accomplish with the principle, and is it still important? If not, drop it, or replace it with a new one that will help you maintain stride.

      Revisit them with each new launch, or annually at the very least. Over time, expectations change, and your principles need to shift with the times. Is there a new channel you’re using? How do your principles scale?
    3. Tell stories with them

      Tie them back to product successes. When you have a big product win, can you attribute it to your principles? If so, which ones? Keep track, and keep score. Not all principles are created equal, and knowing the ones that directly impact customer satisfaction, market share or other success factors will help reinforce the principle for future product directions. And executives love hearing stories of success and knowing how you got there.

      Find examples that show the principle in action. It’s especially helpful to find examples outside your direct industry or channel. Foster discussion about these examples…how can you use them to create new ideas in sync with your product? What’s the story behind the example?

      In her talk UX Team of One, Leah Buley promotes the idea of an inspiration library. Mash this up with design principles, and you have an index of specific, concrete examples that show how the principle takes form in the real world.

      Don’t have good stories for your principles? Then find the stories you want to tell, and use them. Peter Bregman has a great post at Harvard Business Review blog on using stories to change a corporate culture. He cites two great ways to promote new stories:
      1. Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture you want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it.
      2. Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture you want to create. Then tell stories about them.

      Telling stories keeps the people in the picture. After all, the whole purpose of the principles is to serve users. What stories do your principles inspire?
    4. Make them social

      Be as free with the principles as you can. Brandon Schauer says “Don’t trademark it…hashtag it. Think of it as #ourprinciples, not MyPrinciples (TM).”

      Create media that can go viral. Put a 1-minute story about a principle on YouTube. (Or make it artistic and put it on Vimeo) Make it easy to share so that it circulates around the company. One AP workshop attendee had great success sharing short video clips about user experience. The video snippets were picked up and made the rounds. An executive from a different department followed up to ask “How can we get involved with UX?” Communication supports widescale knowledge and adoption.

      Establish an award for rewarding successes that can be linked to the principles. Celebrate adoption and tie inspiration back to the principles.

      Are you in a company with a strict confidentiality clause? Use internal communication vehicles like intranets and company newsletters. Can you get someone to feature the principles in an article? Are there other teams that would benefit from knowing what you’re up to? Host a brown bag for other teams. Tell success stories and encourage them to use the principles in their own work.
    5. Go public

      One of the best ways to hold yourself accountable to a set of guidelines or principles is to go public with them. Design principles should help you deliver great experiences for your customers, and your users are generally outside the firewall. What your principles focus on and how they are stated expresses what you care about and how your products are made. They declare a point of view, and in that way they are closely aligned with your brand.

      Google’s user experience design principles are quite compelling, and posted on their site. By reading them, it’s easy to understand what makes “a Googley user experience.”

      IBM also openly shares their software design principles.

      Compare the two. They feel really different. Authentic design principles reveal how you think about users, how you think about design and as a result, how you think about products you deliver.

    Design principles are a great investment that, with a little care and feeding, will continue to pay off over time. With these tips in your back pocket and your design principles on the wall, you’re ready to make great products for the long haul, and deliver great experiences!



    Kate Rutter is a senior practitioner at Adaptive Path. During her ten plus years in the web industry, she’s honed her talent for bringing companies and customers closer together through smart strategies and inventive design. She actively embraces the term “specialized generalist.”


  • [Photo: Kate Rutter]

    Kate Rutter is a senior practitioner at Adaptive Path. During her ten plus years in the web industry, she’s honed her talent for bringing companies and customers closer together through smart strategies and inventive design. She actively embraces the term “specialized generalist.”

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