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How to Develop Design Principles

Six steps to create a set of design principles for your product team.

What are Design Principles?

Design principles are guidelines (or a north star) to help you and your team organize features of your work and make user-centered design decisions. As the foundation of the user experience you create, they should be used throughout the design process to ensure that the product, system, or service you're designing is serving the end-goals of users and reflect your company's values. Design principles also help unite the product team by providing a set of standards on which to measure a design's success.

According to the authors of About Face, interaction design principles help define a user's experience of a product on three levels:

Conceptual principles - describe what products should be like and how they fit into the context of use.

  • Examples: Interactions should be helpful, trustworthy, take responsibility, and anticipate users' needs.

Behavioral principles - define how a product should behave.

  • Examples: Products should allow users to reverse their changes and fix mistakes, be customizable, and be accessible.

Interface-level principles - shape "strategies for the organization, navigation, and communication of behavior and information".

  • Examples: The interface should be simple, consistent, and use common design patterns.

You can also create visual design principles, which describe how user interface (UI) elements are arranged on the screen.

  • Examples: The user interface should minimize visual complexity, communicate ideas, and be delightful for the user.

So, how can you create your own design principles?

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1. Review existing design principles

If you're working with a company that has used design principles in the past, a review can help start a team discussion on this topic and can give you a chance to see which, if any, principles should be updated to better align with your company's vision or with the intended product experience. If you don't know whether your team has used design principles before, it might be helpful to ask your Product Manager or Design Lead if they can share any previously used principles. A list of existing principles will give you a clearer idea of your company's values, especially in relation to its users and the experience it wants to create, and provide a starting point for you to update, clarify, or strengthen future design principles.

2. Find inspiration

Before diving in, take some time to do a bit of research on the design principles of other companies. By using open source sites like Principles.design and Design Principles FTW, you can find companies that share similar values or that provide user experiences that you find inspiring for your own products.

3. Collaborate with your team

Since design principles are only effective if everyone uses them, it's important to invite teammates and stakeholders from across the company to participate in the creation process. Stakeholders could include other designers, product managers, developers, UX writers, or researchers - anyone who should be motivated to implement the principles in their processes.

Learn more about how to host an 1-hour brainstorming session and get the creative juices flowing.

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4. Narrow and prioritize your principles

Once the team has brainstormed possible design principles, it's important to narrow them down to the ones (usually 5 or less) that align with the vision and values of the company and reflect the core principles for its products. Principles also need to be applicable - can the team actually implement them and use them to help make design decisions?

At the end of the brainstorming session, have each participant explain the thinking behind suggested principles, and then as a group rank the strongest principles according to their alignment with user goals and business vision.

5. Define and clarify your principles

Once the team has decided on the top 4-5 design principles that reflect the company's vision, can be easily applied to the team's design process, and will provide guidance for decision-making, define the principles so that the team has a clear understanding of each. If possible, adding examples of the principles in action (how they should be used) will further help demonstrate their practical application.

6. Make your principles visible

Showcase the design principles throughout the office, using posters, flyers, or even wallet-sized printouts. The principles should also be saved internally for easy access and sharing across the company. Seeing descriptions of the agreed upon design principles will help your team reference them when making design decisions.

Final Thoughts Design principles serve as a guiding force for the often complex design thinking we do to create useful and delightful products. However, designers should consider the specific context of use when making decisions; sometimes, it's necessary for a principle to flexible rather than restrictive to solve for user needs and business goals. When used as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules, design principles can provide unity and clarity for product teams.