10 Product Design Principles

   Design

Over the past two years, Modus Create’s product design practice has grown from two employees to eight employees. As with any growing practice, we have experienced our growing pains. We discovered early on that simply vetting stellar designers was not enough to become a successful team. We were missing a shared understanding of what it means to deliver a Modus caliber experience. So, we created the following list of design principles that outline our overall design philosophy.

Deliver Outcomes

Start every engagement by understanding what the business needs to be successful. Success shouldn’t be subjective. Instead, create a plan to measure progress towards achieving specific goals. If the client wants to win new customers, let’s talk about how many new customers they need. And at what point do they need them?

Ultimately, our job is to change behaviors and solve problems. Deliverables are just stepping stones to get there. In fact, pretty deliverables are useless unless they help achieve a business goal.

Fight for Users

In the fast paced world of software, demands are high and time is thin. As a result, product companies often cut corners to meet deadlines. Unfortunately, crucial steps like user research and usability testing are often the first to get cut. We take a strong stance on this topic:

Failing to involve your users in the design process is the biggest mistake you can make.

No one likes risk. But teams drastically increase risk by making product decisions without understanding users’ problems and environments. They risk spending ample time and money building something unusable or something no one wants. That’s why we always fight the uphill battle for the user — to help the users and our clients.

We value learning just as much as we value business growth. Delivering business outcomes is king, but we can’t do this without learning about our customers’ needs and motivations.

Own the Product

Design specs are useless if the end product looks and functions nothing like the design. We take pride in our deliverables, but we take more pride in shipping awesome products. This drives how we structure our engagements with clients. If we don’t plan formal product reviews, the chance of failing sky rockets. Likewise, without early collaboration between designers and engineers, we risk delays and churn.

Designers = Facilitators

This principle actually came from a talented designer at one of our clients. Digital product teams experience natural tension. As designers, we will go to bat for the customer’s best interests. Engineers will fight for reusable and minimal code, security, and performance. Product owners may prioritize business goals over all else. With so many competing interests, compromises are necessary but hard to come by. As designers, it is our job to facilitate these conversations, drive decisions, and focus the team on a common goal.

Spend Time Wisely

User experience work has a stigma of taking too long — especially user research. We fight to win the time needed to make a quality product. If we don’t get enough time, we make the best of the time we have. That means there is no place for early perfectionism in our work. Good software is never done; so we continually move towards perfection through iteration.

Likewise, don’t create a fifty page deliverable when a napkin sketch and a quick conversation will get the job done. Lastly, remember that recreating the wheel does not qualify as innovation. If an existing design solution solves a problem well, reuse and reappropriate it to your specific context.

Be a Collaborator, Not a Hero

The age of the rockstar/ninja/unicorn designer is over. Product design is an ever growing umbrella of disciplines. While we form our team with designers who can take a project from end-to-end, we encourage designers to gain deep skills within a specialty. If you really love running customer interviews, then work with us to define a career path that hones your interview skills. We take this stance because collaborative teams of generalists (with specialties) trump high performing individuals every time.

This is why collaboration is key. As a majority remote-working company, it can be tempting to crawl into a design hole because it’s comfortable — no annoying differences of opinion or critique. But we must accept that team members will have different opinions. We must embrace critique. Give these perspectives their due diligence and explore how they might transform your own ideas.

Truly embed in the client team — make it hard for our clients to tell where their team ends and ours begins.

Balance Usability & Beauty

With the rise of Dribbble, it has become increasingly easy to fall victim to employing sexy but unusable design trends. It happens to the best of us. But always remember that you are not designing for yourself.

As designers, we notice the details — the intricacies of typography, the complexity of a layered gradient. But the average user doesn’t care about your space age UI. They do, however, care if they can’t read that low-contrast text you just put on the screen (ooh it hurts my soul how good it looks and how bad it works!)

Play the Baby Genius

People are naturally bad at explaining why things are the way they are. This sucks for us, because that’s what we consistently need to uncover to design insightful experiences. But don’t give up; be persistent. Ask why and then ask why again. Ask why five times if you have to, just like a baby. Then do genius things with the information you uncover.

Create with Intent

Always be able to justify your design decisions, because it’s inevitable that people will challenge them. While it’s okay to be wrong, it’s not okay to just design things with no thought or purpose. After all, our company name, Modus Create, literally translates to “Create with Intent.” Be ready to map your decisions back to customer anecdotes, analytics, or business goals. Realize that rules of thumb are often actually subjective and not very convincing. “That’s the way Apple does it” is not a compelling sell either.

Teach a Client to Fish

Some studios want to make clients ever dependent on their services. It makes sense right? This means more cash for longer periods of time. But we take a different approach. The best gift we can give a client is the ability to never need us again. That means putting just as much emphasis on teaching as we do on delivery.

Conclusion

If you’re expanding your design team or have an existing team, creating a list of design principles will create a shared understanding of expectations. We recommend going over your principles with any new hire. Also, just as good software is never done, good product design principles are never done. We’re always looking to evolve and improve this list. Feel free to use it as inspiration for your team, and to let us know your team’s principles in the comments.


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