Design Principles and Tactics: Why You Need Both

Making the case of the best companion for principles

In the late 70’s, industrial designer Dieter Rams took the world by storm when he presented his 10 design principles as an answer to the question: what does good design mean?

Source

He wanted to break down the superfluous patterns embedded in the world around him. Bring design back to its Gute Form roots, inherited from Bauhaus.

Ever since, Rams has inspired generations of designers, including Jony Ive, to design meaningful products following the less is more mantra.

But Rams did not produce the 10 principles in a vacuum. They were the outcome of more than 40 years of trial and error. Dozens of launched products that forged his expertise as a designer.

Flash-forward 50 years, design principles are becoming more and more pervasive in organizations. There are several examples of companies such as Spotify, AirBnB, and Uber with public principles, making other design teams follow suit.

Spotify New Principles: Relevant, Human, and Unified.

Nonetheless, for many teams these type of bold, inspiring principles are not sufficient to ensure a delightful user experience. While being a great tool to standardize a shared definition of design quality (especially in large, distributed teams), principles fall short if they are not properly leveraged and brought into the important conversations during critiques or reviews.

Design principles are only as valuable as the underlying processes enabled to honor them

Teams need to build guardrails to maximize the value of the principles they set out to follow.

I call these guardrails tactics.

Tactics: Putting Principles to Work

Whereas principles focus on the agreements and rationales a team is not willing to compromise, tactics focus on operationalizing design decisions so there is a concrete, checklist-manifesto way to acknowledge whether the principles are being honored or not.

Let’s contrast both principles and tactics to identify their key differences and how they complement each other.

  • Principles are aspirational: they inspire us to up our design game. Tactics are operational: they are the nuts and bolts of how we acknowledge principles.
  • Principles are defined and used when creating new products, teams, and processes. Tactics are used every day when designing in the trenches.
  • Principles are ambitious, bold, and abstract. Tactics are humble, practical, and concrete.

My Own Principles and Tactics

It is true that no set of principles will be applicable to solve any design problem. Not even the ones from Dieter Rams.

Yet, I have learned a thing or two about what design decisions tend to be more successful in the long term, and documented them as principles and tactics.

I only share these principles and tactics to illustrate the form they can take. They might be helpful to your challenges or not. Nonetheless, feel free to grab and use them for inspiration.

I divided the principles into product (the outcome) and process (how to achieve the outcome).

Product Principles

Clarity

The product should never confuse the user. On the contrary, it should be eloquent at stating how to interact with it, making the user feel in the driver’s seat.

Tactics

  • There are adequate signifiers and affordances that allow the user to focus their attention and know what to do next.
  • The language and microcopy supports the user and informs it to make a decision.
  • There are no superfluous elements that add cognitive load and become a distraction in the interface.

Humane

Products are made for people, by people. They should not be user-centered, but human-centered, considering the whole ecosystem of people that converge into the product: users, customers, stakeholders.

Tactics

  • The product, feature, or capability responds to a human motivation.
  • Technology is used to enable the experience, not to mandate it.

Process Principles

Measure twice. Cut once

Software is unpredictable and malleable, hence the need for teams to be wary of moving too fast and breaking things.

Tactics

  • The team conducted a pre-mortem analysis and identified potential risks before committing to invest significant effort.
  • The team relies on over-communication to reduce message ambiguity or lack of shared understanding.

Atomic Assumptions

The ultimate goal of product teams is making better products, faster. To do so, teams should be aware of the known unknowns, articulated through assumptions.

Tactics

  • The team conducted a pre-mortem analysis and identified potential risks before committing to invest significant effort.
  • The team relies on over-communication to reduce message ambiguity or lack of shared understanding.

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Takeaways

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear mentions that people don’t rise to the levels of their goals, but rather fall to the level of their systems. I believe it also applies to principles.

As aspirational as they can be, principles are meaningless if teams do not operationalize them and set tactics to honor the mantras they agreed to honor in the first place.

If your team has a set of principles, you can ask yourself: How are we actually giving voice to our principles? How are we embedding them into our decision-making process? Perhaps defining more concrete tactics can help you amplify the value of the design practice at your organization.

Product Designerd @zenput. Mochaholic. Stoic. Everything we design is designing us in return. arturorios.me

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