Web App Masters: Design Principles

by Luke Wroblewski June 28, 2011

At the Web App Masters Tour in Minneapolis MN, Jared Spool described the importance of design principles, how teams can develop them, and evaluate if they'll be effective. Here are my notes from his The Essential Principles behind Great Design Principles presentation:

  • How do we tell if our designs are getting better? We need way to evaluate them. Design principles embody a design philosophy and help teams get to better design decisions.
  • Design principles provide abstract guidance about how to make decisions. Dieter Rams was one of the first to apply design principles to his work.
  • Google and Facebook have very similar high-level design principles (useful, fast, simple, human) but these principles are so broad that they are almost useless.
  • Companies use generic principles because they are the only things people can agree upon. Who would argue that “fast” and “universal” are not good principles? As a result, these generic principles show up a lot.
  • The problem with really long lists of principles is that no team can keep them all in mind as they go through the design process.
  • Good design principles are specific and not overly extensive.
  • The Windows 7 Desktop design principles are very specific and designed to address the issues the Windows team found when observing people who used Windows Vista. These principles allowed the Windows 7 team to say “no” to ideas that did not fit with their vision and the problems they found with Windows Vista.

Developing Design Principles

  • Field research doesn’t have to take a long time. You can visit many customers in just a few days. When people visit their customers for the first time, they tend to end up with lists of things they can go solve now. People need to get their ideas out. It’s like they “gotta pee” and they can’t focus on other things until they get it out.
  • As a group, you can prioritize the things that need to get done. Try using the KJ technique, which allows you to get to top priorities quickly.
  • Once you have your top priorities, you can develop personas, their scenarios, and the principles that support them. From there design explorations can be done quickly that will have the impact.
  • Disposable personas are thrown away when the project is done. Because they are disposable, they don’t have to be generic across everything. They can just focus on the immediate project and its goals. These personas can be created quickly because the team has just observed real people in the field that reflect these problems. There is no process required to “sell” personas because people have just met their actual customers.
  • Scenarios are even easier to write up because everyone just observed real people. Trying to get things done. These become your scenarios.
  • Design principles are created by asking the question “when we run into a problem like this we should strive to ______.”
  • Solutions are easy. It’s understanding the problems that is the hard part. Create a really short creative brief: set the goal of the design (project statement), decide who are we designing this for? (personas), what does this design need to do? (scenarios), how will we know if we did great? (design principles)
  • When starting a meeting about a project. Someone needs to read the creative brief before you start talking about any details. The creative brief is usually only three quarters of a page long. So it does not take a lot of time to read out but it gets everyone on the same page.
  • Every design team is very good at criticism. But not many are good at critique. Separate things out: what are we trying to accomplish and how we’ve chosen to accomplish it?
  • Design principles should not be common. They need to be specific to what you are trying to accomplish.

Evaluating Design Principles

  • There are six questions that you can use to evaluate your design principles.
  • Does the design principle come directly from research? What kind of research finds principles like “clean” and “universal”? None. Knowing the observations that led to principles is makes them actionable.
  • Does this principle allow you to say “no” most of the time? We need to get rid of good designs. We need to get to great designs.
  • Does the design principle distinguish your design from your competitor’s designs?
  • Have you evaluated the design principle for this project?
  • Is this design principle something you might want to reverse in a future release? If we can imagine effective designs that don’t meet our principle. That’s how we get to great deigns from good designs.
  • Is the design principle’s meaning constantly being tested?
  • These tests help you make design principles that work. They are design principles for design principles.
  • Principles: are specific to your projects; are derived from your research; are influential in design explorations; drive your critiques; define your vocabulary of good design and bad design.
  • Many teams don’t have a shared vocabulary by which they can discuss design decisions.