From design, principles to design conversations: A way to actually help us designers to talk about what really matters.

Two men trying to talk to each other with megaphones

Lots of design firms have design principles. They take their time to make them, discuss them, and find the exact words to reflect and convey the perfect design intentions, but do we really use design principles while designing? for example, if we used the principle of economically viable, or desirable, do we actually think about these things while placing a button, a call to action, or think about our UX writing phrasing in this way?

This is a problem with principles, they are often in a form that is not helpful, creating big overarching statements that feel more like commandments than anything else, because the way they are described is like immutable statements, and immutability does not get along so well in an ever-changing world where framing and reframing lead to new perspectives and visions of the world we ought to live in.

Immutable statements don’t make a difference, they are like a north star that is never reached and probably doesn’t apply to the everyday context or design processes.

Today principles have kind of become a replacement for mission statements and values, which are aspirational. Mission statements tried to build a bridge between users and companies, tried to anthropomorphize them. But today users seem to be in the need of something more, to understand not a set of descriptions that try to bring a concept or a way of living closer to home, but to understand how decision-makers inside are making decisions, why a certain service or product is conceived. Principles might let users get a glimpse of this, but won’t help designers design better, because truth is, principles that are created as a guiding star, are a watered-down oversimplification that tries to merge the values of very different people in a collective.

So maybe instead of thinking about design principles, we should be thinking about how we could have more meaningful design conversations that help us make decisions and merging these conversations with the process we are going through.

We usually design something, we make a decision over another by gut feeling and past experiences, and then when someone asks us why we made that choice, we will surely be prepared to answer or come up with a rationale that explains it, but is this useful? is this the way it should be done? how we can stop post hoc rationale?

Break down your design into the different stages needed, then into tasks, and then into the different actions required for users to complete every task in each stage. Expose these in a wall so that everyone concerned can see them clearly, and then ask yourself:

Behavioral change: What behavior you are trying to enable or change? Does this part of the design help or hinder it? We often focus on what the "thing" we are creating must do. Requirements are just one part of the story, requirements that are not attached to behavioral change will probably have less impact.

Liberty of choice: Are we making decisions that probably the user should be making? If we left the user to make this decision instead of us, how would it change the experience and design? We often forget to think about this, but as we design we factor in decisions, decisions that we made for our users to help them navigate. Sometimes making these decisions in their place is the right choice, but sometimes it might not. Think about the different scenarios these choices might result in.

Simplification and complexity: Should this task be more simple or more complex? why? Does the overall design have the right balance of these two things to avoid task dropout? This is a hard thing to think about, but as designers sometimes we tend to oversimplify tasks that should not be oversimplified. Complexity in itself is not a bad thing.

Content and interpretation: Is our content clear enough? In how many ways can these wordings be interpreted? Where would these interpretations lead the user? It's important to remember that interpretation is always on the user's side, so we need to be extra careful in trying to identify possible scenarios of interpretation and their impact.

Order of tasks, the order of the story: Flow is always important, ask yourself if the order of tasks makes sense, as it would in a story or a novel. Sometimes the logical order can be altered to create amazement and bring something unexpected to create delight.

Creating a space and a process that can help us designers have deeper conversations about our designs is key to really get a dialogue going into a deeper-philosophical impact-oriented level. Principles are a guide, reflection and conversation is the input and how and why we will do what we do.

Senior Strategic designer, passionate about design and creativity applied to Service Design, UX and Strategy. (Paris/Argentina)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store