Design Principles

A simple but powerful tool to keep your product experience consistent and guide your decision-making

A simple but powerful tool to keep your product experience consistent and guide your decision-making

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Design principles are one of the most used tools in my product management toolbox. Think of a design principle as a pre-established guideline to help shape your product solutions. A handful of well-defined design principles go a long way to helping drive consistency and streamlining tradeoff decisions.

When do you come up with design principles? Consider it as part of the project kickoff but treat it as a “living document” – As you dig into the project, you’ll see new design principles to define and commit to following. 

Pro Tip: Getting stakeholder buy-in is a game-changer. Having stakeholder endorsed design principles makes tough tradeoffs much more straightforward and can help save you from having the same conversation repeatedly.

For example, our product was heavily reliant on WordPress (in a good way) but had too frequently used Custom Fields as part of the configuration and formatting interface. Our team’s design principle was NO custom fields for publishing purposes. Here’s why.

There’s no exhaustive list of pre-defined custom fields, so the publisher must remember what the key is, e.g., show_advanced_author_box. The fields were plain text, so something that needed to be true/false wasn’t just a checkbox and instead had to be a specific text snippet. These snippets included true, True, 1, and yes. Custom field data isn’t version controlled, so if someone changed it, you couldn’t track when the change was made and by whom.

By having a design principle – endorsed by the internal champion/sponsor – we always had a strong case to say NO when tempted to go the easy route of a custom field as deadlines loomed and scope crept.

Other design principles I’ve had in the past: no drag and drop, minimize tooltip usage, minimum performance scores, limiting the number of clicks, including keyboard shortcuts when an action is required.

Keep in mind – less is more. While you’ll want to keep these prominently documented, ideally, the team internalizes them, and that’s a tall order if there are 37 principles to remember.

The best design principles save you from temptation — and temptation catches us all out once in a while.