Design principles

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Design principles

I’m doing some research into design principles for a project at work, with some colleagues. Design principles help focus and guide the design process to align product development with organisational objectives, brand values and user needs. Design principles provide strategic direction for design work, particularly for larger organisations with a number of products or services. But they can also work for start-ups and smaller organisations, who want to ensure they don’t stray from a clear vision that makes their product or service unique.

Design principles can also be thought of as best practise heuristics. I’m not going to write at length about how design principles can be used, as I’ve found some really useful resources elsewhere. For example Whitney Hess’s presentation, and posts by Jax WechslerLuke Wroblewski and Sarah Nelson.

There have been a couple of other notable posts recently which seem very timely given our design principles project. The first was by the UK Government Digital Service who have published a set of 10 design principles for developing Government digital services. It’s inspiring to see that GDS are using principles to focus their design projects. I particularly like the way their principles are written: clear, concise and no-nonsense. Juksie’s post about the GDS design principles is well worth a read.

The second post which came to my attention was from Abbey Covert, who has developed some IA heuristics. Abbey’s approach to developing the principles was led by reviewing the existing literature on IA best practise principles and heuristics, and synthesising her findings into a new set of heuristics.

One of our starting points has been to review existing design and usability principles, developed by UX researchers and other well known organisations. To help understand which principles are referenced most frequently, I collected principles from various sources (listed below*), added them to a spreadsheet, categorised them and visualised them as a word cloud:

A word cloud of frequently used design principles

I had to make some subjective decisions about how to categorise the principles, but it was fairly clear which are the most popular ones e.g. ‘consistent’, ‘simple’, ‘user control’, ‘inclusive’, ‘feedback’, ‘aesthetic design’. All these principles were included in Norman’s design principles and Neilsen’s heuristics which indicates that many organisations may have referenced those sources. It isn’t surprising that these existing principles have propagated, because they are are borne out by best practise and research.

‘User centred’ was mentioned less frequently in the design principles I analysed, perhaps because it seems too obvious. Newman and Lamming (1995) highlighted the importance of including even the most obvious principles:

The need to design with a view to supporting human activity is so basic it often gets left out of people’s general principles or ‘golden rules’. So it needs to be stated here at the outset:

  • Design with a view to supporting the user’s task or process.

A second principle relates to the need to address the concerns of the user. If we know who this user is and have some familiarity with his or her special needs, we can orient our design strategy accordingly. But we often lack this understanding. A fundamental guideline to follow is Hansen’s ‘user engineering principle’ (1971):

  • Know the user.

By a combination of studying the user’s activities and learning about their skills, knowledge, roles and responsibilities, we can design according to these two principles.

I was also surprised that references to emotional responses such as the principle ‘delightful’ were relatively under-used. Especially in a time when there seems to be a proliferation of books, talks and conference workshops covering topics such as designing products with personality, or designing for emotional engagement and delight.

Design principles can be developed at different levels. They can be universal, covering the entire design output of an organisation. Or they can be tailored for specific products or projects. We are aiming to develop some universal design principles in the first instance.

As we move to the next stage of developing our design principles I’m interested to know how well design principles work elsewhere. Does your organisation use design principles? Are you willing to share them? How have they worked for you? Do your products adhere to the principles? What happens if a design principle is ignored? Is there any governance to ensure design principles are followed? Please leave a comment if you have any insights to share!

* The principles we have referenced so far include:

Apple iOS
Bruce Tognazzini
Government Digital Service
Morville, Peter
Nielsen, Jakob
Norman, Don
Schneiderman, Ben
The Understanding Group’s Heuristic IA Principles




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