5 research strategies for relevant design principles

In this article I am willing to share a few ideas that have helped us to define design principles at our company.

Like me, you may be overwhelmed by a myriad of principles companies are publishing these days. Aiming to define the most relevant ones, your team should pay attention to qualities of effective design principles and sources to look for them.

As Alla Kholmantova states in her book “Design Systems”, good principles promote shared values about what a good design is for your team and help prioritize and make design decisions.

There are at least 5 strategies to define design principles:
  • Determine what current and desirable aspects of your product / design process / organisation culture contribute to company’s vision, goals
  • Conduct a UI inventory
  • Check the list of design issues
  • Analyse design discussions and become aware of how design decisions are made
  • Do user observation
The desirable values of product, process and culture

The first step for developing relevant design principles is to get an common agreement on desirable company’s cultural values, design process values and the values of your product. Those that contribute to company’s goals. Design principles will give a direction and advice on how to achieve these values.

The guidance for finding these could be found in company’s vision statement, values and objectives. Product values come from different sources – business, design, marketing . It should be a unique set of qualities which set a product apart from competitor.

UI inventory

In case you are working in a larger company – chances are you have more than one project going on. It’s a good idea to be aware of visual and interaction inconsistencies in UIs, comparing how the same problems are solved in different projects. Could it be solved in a better way?

As a designer, you probably will easily remember the design pain points. Having a wall full of the most important UIs printed out promotes design discussions in the office. The bird’s-eye view also helps to spot differences and shared themes easily, e.g. scattered layout of data input fields, lack of meaningful grouping of information, lack of visual priorities, and as a result, lack of attention direction, visual inconsistencies.

All of these issues are a good source for design principles, e.g. Ensuring meaningful data grouping in context is more important than plain consistency or Meaningfulness over consistency. We make sure that users have no doubts about information grouping.

Design issues audit

Next strategy is to look up the UI issues/bug list and to spot the tendencies there. Group all the issues in relevant themes, like “Visual consistency”, “Interaction mistake”, “Data grouping”. Find out the tendencies – it is another source for design principles. E.g. if you find a tendency of visual consistency issues, you can dig deeper and try to understand what are the reasons of those inconsistencies.

Maybe a visual style guide could be improved or maybe it is a result of lack of design ownership in the team? Maybe some views weren’t updated with latest design changes? In any case answering such questions can lead to new insights and design principles.

Discussing design and design decisions

Being aware and staying curious on how design decisions are made in your team could give ideas for processing related principles. Ask yourself questions like “What kind of discussions are most common in design meetings?”, “What conflicting requirements come up most of the time?” or “What kind of people participate in discussions? Do these people have design background?”, “Are design decisions being made with the context of use in mind?”, “How often design decisions are made based on assumptions?” Again, answering these kind of questions can lead to new design principles, e.g. Start with user needs, Don’t assume, Empathize with users, Understand the context you are designing for. Of course these should be more detailed to help team understand the meaning.

User observation

Observing users is probably the most insightful and valuable source of ideas for effective design principles. Nothing can be more convincing than seeing users struggling to complete a task or trying to recover from an error.

During one user observation session our team saw a user scrolling between two lists (positioned in a column) up and down to map the information. Each time the user wanted to fill data in the second list- she needed to locate the specific information on the first list. Naturally, this was an obvious design failure, but it has led the team to design a principle All information needed to complete the task should be readily available in one context. Don’t let the users to become annoyed by forcing them to look for information across the whole view.

It’s also worth mentioning that design principles are useless until all teammates agrees upon them, so it’s important to involve all team in developing them. Getting buy-in from management, developers and QA people can be challenging, but it’s possible by showing the value principles will bring to those different groups of people.

Staying aware of what success looks like for the company, the UI flaws and design process helped us to define relevant design principles for our company. Hopefully you got some ideas on how to start defining yours.