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Creating Great Design Principles: 6 Counter-intuitive Tests

by Jared M. Spool
on March 1, 2011

Universal, Human, Clean

Useful, Fast, Simple

These are design principles, the first three
from the Facebook design team
and the latter three from
Google’s UX team
. They are good. They are
certainly qualities to aspire to. After all, who wouldn’t want to
create a clean or simple design?

However, I don’t think they are great design principles. Great
design principles help designers learn more about their design and
make critical decisions about what they’re building.

In contrast, look at this design
principle from the Windows 7 Desktop Design team
:

Reduce concepts to increase confidence.

A designer can take their design sketch and ask, “Are we introducing
any new concepts? If so, why? Is it necessary?” This speaks directly
to the users’ experience. Given two alternative design approaches,
we can see which one requires fewer concepts for the user to achieve
their tasks.

Lately, we’ve been working with teams to craft great design
principles. Each time we succeed, we end up with a list of guiding
phrases that help the team make important decisions. Those phrases
keep coming up, in idea discussions, sketch reviews, and design
critiques.

Each time the phrase comes up, there’s a discussion. “What do we
consider a concept?” “How can we tell if confidence increased?”
Answering questions like that makes each designer smarter. It also
establishes a common ground for the team as a whole, giving them a
way to suss out the boundaries of the principles — what’s in and
what’s out, to misquote Project Runway’s Heidi Klum.

Researching What Makes Great Design Principles

In our research of great user experience design, we found design
principles can play a really important role. However, most design
principles fell short because they were too motherhood and apple pie
— too blue sky.

As we looked at the teams getting the most from their principles, we
found these were more detailed, more specific than just one word
attributes, like “innovative.” They were talking to the very things
that would make this release different, better than anything they or
their competitors had produced before.

This specificity seems, at first glance, counter-intuitive to the
idea of principles — an overarching idea of the right way to design
something. However, because they were specific to what the designers
were working on at that moment, they played a much bigger role in
formulating the look, feel, and experience of the design. That’s
exactly what you want from principles.

We’ve captured what we discovered and put them into six tests. If a
principle passes every test, it’s a great design principle — one
that will likely guide the design team to produce designs their
users love.

Test #1: Does It Come Directly From Research?

The Windows 7 Desktop Design team spent a lot of time studying the
user experience from Microsoft Vista (the previous release). They
noted where user frustrations were coming from. Their design
principles emerged directly from that research.

Everyone on your team should have a ton of examples at their
fingertips about how the current design or your competitor’s designs
violate each principle. It should be easy to see how, when followed,
the principle will make a better experience than what’s out there today.

To make this work, everyone on the team needs to have the same
background on the research. First-hand experience with the research
is the best. If there’s still discussion about whether an existing
design does or doesn’t meet the criteria set forth by the principle,
the principle isn’t yet clear enough.

Test #2: Does It Help You Say ‘No’ Most Of The Time?

It’s easy to separate a good design from bad designs. A great
principle helps you distinguish a great design from the good
designs. While a good design might be ok, it’s not great if it
doesn’t follow the principle.

Take the Windows 7 Desktop principle of UX before knobs
and questions.
Applying this principle, the designers could look at
a new feature and ask questions like “Does this require
configuration to get value?” or “Are we asking questions we’ve
already gotten the answer to?” They can eliminate designs that put
configuration over a great user experience, even though those
designs might have been clean, useful, and simple.

As a rule of thumb, a great principle should make the team
reconsider two-thirds of the designs that came before them. It helps
the team say “This idea isn’t completely baked yet. Keep pushing on
it.” It becomes the razor between good and great.

Test #3: Does It Distinguish Your Design From Your Competitors’?

The Windows Phone UI team’s principle, Celebrate
Typography
is a direct swipe at the Blackberry and even the iPhone.
The designers talk about having an “uncompromising sensitivity to
weight, balance, and scale”, something their competitors haven’t
attended to.

Your team should have an easy time understanding how competitors
would want to take different principles than what you’ve adopted.
Easy to use is not something that will ever set a
competitor apart. However, Focus on polish before new
features
could set your design apart from a competitor trying to
win the hearts and minds of customers through new features, even
though their existing platform is buggy and convoluted.

Test #4: Is it Something You Might Reverse In A Future Release?

One team discovered their users were overwhelmed by the complexity
of the command navigation. Their current design featured every
possible action on every possible object. In their next release,
they’ve adopted the principle, Emphasize discovery over
completeness.
They wanted users to easily discover the most
important functions. They planned on removing infrequently used functions.

However, they could imagine a future project where completeness
would be more important than discovery. In designing an interface
for highly-trained administrators, for example, having easy access
to every function would be key to the design’s success.

Great principles aren’t ever-truisms. They are only useful for right
now. By thinking through scenarios of when you’d reverse them later,
you help define what it means to follow that principle now.

Test #5: Have You Evaluated It For This Project?

As you start a new project (or even sub-project), the team should
look at the research, the competitors, and the market to see if the
principle still applies. It should be one of the first things the
team discusses when they launch a new initiative.

It’s very likely that different teams, simultaneously working on
separate aspects of a release, could have their own principles. For
example, in a medical office management system, the appointment
calendar team works with different principles than the team working
on insurance billing reports. These teams should discuss their
principles with each other, to identify any that might apply across
both efforts. However, they shouldn’t worry if they are working
to different principles. After all, their two projects probably have
very different measures of success.

As projects progress, new principles will emerge and old principles
will need to go into storage. Over time, the team can track its
maturity by tracking the changes in their principles.

Test #6: Is Its Meaning Constantly Tested?

Responding to the overwhelming feedback that their current releases
were too buggy, one team adopted Polish over new features
as a key principle. Once the first design sketches started
appearing, their team discussions quickly focused on the meaning of
polish. Does it include non-bug changes? Colors? Fonts? White space?

Principles often start out with just a definition of “we’ll know it
when we see it.” We can easily tell when something is very
unpolished or very polished. But soon we need understand the two
extremes and identify when we’re following the principle and when
the design needs more work.

These discussions are healthy for your team, especially if you
talk about real designs and sketches. It gives your team a chance to
glean a common understanding of your goals. It equalizes the
authority, so anyone can say what’s been agreed to and what the
principle means. This leads to an increased understanding of what
good design is across the entire release.

Most Design Principles Fail Many Of The Tests

If your team has already tried to put together your own principles,
chances are they’ll fail many of the tests. As a field, we’ve done a
crappy job of talking about what makes a great principle work.

Don’t despair. Start having the conversations. The best principles
change as the team’s perspectives on design matures. Don’t be afraid
to let your principles grow into something that will guide your team
to create user experiences your customers will thank you for.

Share your thoughts with us

How do your principles fare against these tests? Share your
experiences on our UIE Brain Sparks Blog.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.