Crafting impactful design principles

 Clouston Mahon photo
Clouston Mahon UX Design Lead
5min read

Throughout history, humans have found direction from statements of intent that suggest 'better' ways of living.

The Ten Commandments, The Four Stages of Enlightenment and The Buddhist Eightfold Path are some of the earliest examples. Fast forward a few thousand years and we’ve got Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and countless others.

But I strongly believe that guiding principles like these should not be reserved solely for philosophical direction or divine intervention. They should play a bigger part in our everyday lives, and more specifically, in the work that we do in financial services.

Design direction

In the world of design, guiding principles aren't uncommon.

In fact, they’ve become essential for maturing design teams looking to achieve their collective goals in a results-based and value-driven way. With so many agile fintechs popping up and flying the flag of user-centricity, we’re seeing an abundance of content relating to design practices being published, with shared principles often leading the way.

Because this is such a well-trodden path (and one that I’ve trodden many times before) I want to share what I think makes a set of useful and impactful design principles. It’s worth noting that these principles are applicable to many areas of business, not just design.

What should impactful design principles do?

1. Reflect your values

Design principles - or any principle for that matter - should represent an underlying belief system that resonates with your target audience.

In a professional environment, company values and mission statements can be helpful foundations to layer your principles upon. If you don’t have this kind of context, try speaking to stakeholders to better understand what values they think drive success for the business.

People trust the NHS. Take care not to jeopardise that. Design things that are reliable and secure.

NHS Design Principles

2. Articulate ambition

If your principles are intended to propose a better way of working (or living), it’s worth highlighting the ultimate impact you want to make.

Principles should be aspirational, so it’s important to paint a picture of the better world you hope to achieve for your users.

Our products are born to bring people together to work in teams. They are as accessible as possible, they are as inclusive as possible, they are as open as possible.

Atlassian Design Principles

3. Be clear and concise

There’s very little point in having principles if they don’t clearly articulate the change you want to make.

Make sure your principles get to the point and are written in a way that’s easily understood by your intended audience. If you don’t rate your own writing skills, recruit a wordsmith team member to help craft principles that will resonate and add value.

Excellent design means boldly being ourselves. It’s asking, ‘are we bravely expressing who we are in what we make?’

Etsy Design Principles

4. Help make trade-off decisions

Designers are often put in the position where they need to make a trade-off decision between two competing goals. Luckily, principles can help to make this process easier.

The company values, product strategies and customer insights mentioned before should help you determine the right path to take. Don’t forget to explain what a ‘wrong turn’ looks like, to make it clear which roads not to go down!

Bots should not attempt to replace what humans are good at; rather they should attempt to improve what humans are slow at.

Intercom Principles of Bot Design

5. Be specific to your goals

When writing design principles, it can be easy to fall into the trap of simply stating the tenets of good design, rather than being specific about the work you’re doing or the people you’re designing for.

I’ve seen too many principles suggesting designers “keep users at the centre of everything they do” or “design with accessibility in mind”.

Although handy reminders, truly impactful principles should help you make decisions within the context of the problems you’re solving. Calling out these intricacies when crafting your own principles will help to provide a clear focus for the reader.

Wearables are the newest addition to our digital lives. As designers, we should strive to provide useful offline modes and frictionless transitions.

Fjord’s Five Principles for the Wearable Revolution

Ultimately, design principles should help us to make better decisions for the specific contexts, users and business cases we’re designing for.

In the fintech industry particularly, where the experiences we design have such an impact on people’s day to day lives (whether they realise it or not), we must make sure we’re designing based on our own values and ambitions for the better world we want to see. Used correctly, purposeful design principles should drive tangible outcomes for you and your team.

I’d challenge you to craft your own principles using the guidelines above, or build upon your existing principles to strive for greater impact.