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Design a Better Product with Product Principles

To start designing more inclusively, we need to start with a good foundation. A solid set of product principles can cement a vision to unite your team and define a universally inviting experience.

What are product principles?

Design principles need to provide teams with a way to gauge design decisions.

Luke Wroblewski

Product principles are a set of goals that tie your values to your outcomes. They should be specific enough that you can measure your research, decisions, artifacts, and output against them and judge whether you’re living up to them. (In fact, here are the principles I came up with for this very site two years ago.) Every member of your team should be able to remember them and consider them when making decisions.

Good product principles should:

  • Be specific enough to measure
  • Work throughout your product process
  • Inspire your team to create better outcomes
  • Challenge mediocre and half-assed results
  • Be simple and memorable
  • Differentiate your product from competitors

Product principles should be a reflection of your team’s values and the overall vision for your product, brand, and company. For best results, they should extend beyond the basic expectations that people assume for any product. Thus, you should avoid focusing on principles that should be a baseline for all great products, like consistency, usability, performance, etc.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t weigh your product against these basics. But just like a great chef isn’t defined by the edibility of the food she creates or the cleanliness of her plates, your principles shouldn’t be defined by the lowest expectations of your users.

Needless to say, building an inclusive experience should be a baseline for any great product, but it’s worth reiterating in your principles if it’s something you want to differentiate your product on.

Defining great product principles: A workshop idea

Here’s a simple workshop you can run to start the process of developing your product principles.

Materials:
  • Sticky notes
  • Pens
  • Walls
  • Snacks
The process
  1. Gather some of the diverse stakeholders from your company: lead engineers, product managers, designers, marketing, and support. Book roughly 2 hours on their calendar in a room together.
  2. For the first 10 minutes, ask everyone to quietly write down at least 8 qualities that either currently separate or should separate your product from competitors.
  3. After 10 minutes, have each member present their notes, placing them on the wall. As more people share, there will be some duplication. Place similar notes around those that are already on the wall. This should take roughly 15–20 minutes.
  4. Next repeat the process from step 1, except with 1–2 notes answering the following:
    • If our product were an animal, it would be ______. And why?
    • If our product were a person, it would be ______. And why?
    • If our product were a company, it would be ______. And why?
    • If our product were a movie, it would be ______. And why?
    • If our product were a place, it would be ______. And why?
  5. Again, have each person present their notes with explanations. Pay particular attention to the reasons and any descriptive attributes that come up to distinguish the product. Again, if there’s overlap (which may be less likely in this case), place the cards near each other.
  6. These two activities should give you a wide range of adjectives, descriptors, and differentiators. Take a snack and potty break time. Let what you’ve been discussing soak in and give people some space to recover. Snacks will give them energy for a third round. During the break, write the major overlapping descriptors and differentiators down on a whiteboard or poster so everyone can see them.
  7. For the third and final activity, take another 10 minutes and have each person write down 3–5 principles using the descriptors and differentiators from earlier that describe what you want your product to feel like to customers. In addition, have them write down 2–3 descriptors that you want your product to avoid.
  8. Again, have each person present their principles. Place overlapping or similar principles near each other.

At the end of the workshop, you should have a list of 8–15 potential principles, with some overlapping. Write these down, send them out, and continue the conversation to find and hone the best ones.

Once you’ve settled on the ones that feel right for your product, make sure they’re easy to find and on the top of everyone’s mind. Print them out, add them to the intranet, tattoo them on unsuspecting employees, do whatever it takes to ingrain them in the consciousness of the organization.

How to use them

Congratulations! You have some product principles. Now what? Test them! Ask your users how they would describe your product. See which principles come closest. Which ones don’t match? That’ll give you a baseline for where to focus your effort.

As you continue to iterate on your product, ask questions in research with users to gauge how well new features or changes align with your principles. When designing, keep your principles top of mind as you write copy, lay out UI, and create your cohesive vision. In critique sessions, rate solutions and design concepts on how well the solution adheres to each principle. In design studios, lean on your principles to spark ideas and measure potential concepts. The more you rely on your principles, the more they’ll shine through in every aspect of your product.

Learn more

Interested in learning more about product principles?

Here are design/product principles from a few different companies:

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