Every designer follows some sort of design principle(s). Regardless of whether such principles have been thought through and set in stone or whether they have been kept vague and never properly considered, they still exist. Just like with core moral values, not choosing your own design principles doesn’t mean you won’t have any – you still will. However, they might not be the ones you’d have chosen for yourself if you’d given them some thought.
So without further ado, here they are.
Every thing is a system, and every system is part of a bigger system. My toenail is part of my toe, and my toe is part of my foot, which is part of one of my limbs, which in turn is part of my body. My body is part of a larger community of bodies that live in my apartment, and my apartment building, and my neighbourhood. All these bodies live and breathe alongside the bodies of other living species, and we all live on a planet that is itself part of a galaxy, the universe and beyond.
When designing digital products, this premise translates into understanding that the content within a button is part of such button, and that the button is itself part of a form, which is part of a screen, which represents a step that’s part of a longer process. And eventually, that process (or task, or activity) is going to reach a higher level that falls outside the realm of the digital product itself, and expands across a user’s context, needs and wishes.
This concept also applies to Atomic design, which suggests the idea of using a design system by which smaller components (e.g. button) are part of larger components (e.g. forms), which helps bring consistency to the entirety of the design as well as streamline design thinking.
‘I hate this product, it’s so simple and easy to understand that anyone could use it’, said no one ever. By making a design accessible to as many people as possible, we are enabling both users challenged by accessibility issues and users who are not to use our product.
Good contrast, good typefonts and font size, and image captions for screen readers are the bare minimum that should become a standard for website development. Taking into account mental health challenges and learning disabilities should become our next step.
It’s just another way to say that form should follow function, and not the other way around.
Sometimes there is a requirement for a product to be a certain way or do a certain thing, but such requirements need to be challenged on a regular basis to make sure that we are building what is needed – and not what we thought we needed and turned into a requirement.
Following up on the previous principle, it’s important to review the existing features and functionalities of a current product to make sure all that is there is truly necessarily. I call this marie-kondoing and getting rid of what doesn’t spark joy.
A user is never using your product in a vacuum.
They might be browsing on their phone while watching a TV show at night – their kids are in bed, their partner is doing the dishes and they are looking for a new party dress, a nanny or the number of their GP practice while something on Netflix is playing in the background.
They might also be still at work, in front of their computer, worried that they won’t get home on time. They might have an unexpected event coming up the day after for which they have to wear a certain kind of outfit they don’t own, they might be a single parent and in look of someone they can trust who can just pick up their kid from school. They might be trying to get a GP appointment because they are feeling really sick all of a sudden and need to see a doctor.
Or they might be on the bus, after having an argument with someone. They might be anxious because they just gained weight, or their nanny just resigned last-minute, or their kid has been complaining about a stomach ache for three days and it doesn’t seem to go away.
A good product designer should understand that all of these context – and so many more – are possible, and design with a variety of contexts in mind.
Users deserve respect and information. They deserve to have all the information they need – but not necessarily require –, but not all the information they require – which maybe they don’t need.
It is our job as designers to understand what information is truly needed, and to deliver it in a way that makes sense, is easy to digest and doesn’t overwhelm the user.
I’m a firm believer in human kindness. I think most people are kind. Most people are also polite out of social norms and diplomacy. People don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. As a result, most people lie.
People also don’t really know what they want – myself included. So don’t ask a user what they want, and don’t listen to them when they say they really want something. Observe instead. Ask the right questions. Consider how they go about their lives, what challenges they are facing on a daily basis. And then go away and work on a solution.
Don’t ask them what the solution might be. That’s not their job, it’s mine (and yours).
Don’t expect your users to use a product in the exact way you intended them to. You can’t control what people do with what you put out into the world, so don’t get frustrated when things don’t go your way.
Be aware of cognitive biases and human flaws, of people’s inability to focus on things, to read things in a certain order or to remember everything. And understand that it does not help that you, the designer, are a flawed and biased human yourself.