Design principles.

Design principles help guide design. As a business, we can make valuable decisions grounded by rational thinking.

By Tom Davy.2nd November 2018

Cross-functional teams bring together many disciplines to create products and services. To deliver in this way requires high levels of collaboration that continue throughout the lifecycle of development.

Working as part of a multidisciplinary team to tackle complex problems can be difficult. Yet we are clear that these team set-ups will provide us and our clients with the best results. Insight is brought from all relevant disciplines, conversation is encouraged and, in turn, drives greater efficiency. 

Managing group dynamics can often be the most difficult and important contribution to the design thinking process. It involves the collaboration of many minds, personalities and ways of working. Often, there can be more than one solution to a problem. As a large team, how do we manage those choices? When working with clients, how can we align our decision-making?

Rethinking the design process.

Over the last three months, we as a Design Team have been working on ways to document our delivery process in a way that can add value to our customers and end users. As part of this work, I’ve been looking at design principles.

Design principles are a loose set of rules that can help guide delivery by making valuable decisions that are grounded by rational thinking. Creating a set of universal principles will help to guide a business, steering it and its customers in the right direction and allow for the evaluation of decisions made.

Creating principles that offer guidance.

A good principle needs to:

  • Promote solid decision-making. Rather than reliance on an individual opinion, an evidence-based approach driven by data should be supported.
  • Help to reduce resistance in digital decision-making by promoting a common point of reference and best practice. 
  • Help the audience understand why we do what we do, e.g. the iterative approach to digital delivery.

Finally, those principles should be quotable, written in a way that is not confusing or overwhelming. A measure of success would be for someone outside of the design team to reference a principle to another team member or stakeholder to help make a decision.

Research and development workshop.

To kick off the work around our principles, I sent invites out to members of the team and encouraged anyone who wanted to come to attend. Before engaging a wider audience, it makes sense to collectively agree on what you are trying to achieve. This creates a base for confidently presenting findings to key business decision-makers - and to a wider audience.

In preparation for the workshop, I collected a range of current and successful guidelines from different organisations and sectors. Over eighty principles from nine different organisations, ranging from digital agencies, consultants, government departments to industry gurus. Each one appeared on a separate card that included the title, a description and the author.

During the workshop, each participant was handed a set of principles, and we then went around the table and spoke about each principle and how we felt it could align to our business and user needs. We grouped the cards into common topics and stacked them by the group’s preference, discarding cards that couldn’t meet those needs. Seeing a pattern in topics ranked by what most aligned with our organisation, we discussed what the cost of each principle would mean to the business and whether we would have to change the way we work.

Wider organisational buy-in.

After having established a clear direction for the principles, it’s time to engage stakeholders. As those directives need to be adopted by the wider office, buy-in is an essential stage of the development process.

Successful principles offer orientation, not limitation. The objective isn’t to create a set of rules that could be used to dictate to people how to do their jobs. You are looking for them to be helpful guidance that a team can work with. Creating time to consult the people this would effect is important. Talk to senior developers, sales colleagues and others who will ultimately help their teams deliver against what you are proposing.

Inspiretec design principles.

Design principles help guide design. As a business, we can make valuable decisions grounded by rational thinking.

1. We care about standards.

Usability means making sure something works well, where a person of average experience or ability can use it without frustration. We deliver designs for everyone and work towards both web and accessibility standards. We design to a minimum of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A. Conformance to these guidelines will help make the web more accessible to users with disabilities and will benefit all users.

2. We look at the bigger picture.

Considered design prevents problems and facilitates users. If it’s not self-evident, we make it self-explanatory. Making something look simple is easy. Making something simple to use is harder. Focus on making the process as straightforward as possible.

3. We are consistent, not uniform. 

Speak the user’s language and speak with one voice. Consistency equals confidence. Users need to know that once they learn to do something, they will be able to do it again. Language, layout and design are a few interface elements that need consistency. As all interfaces require some level of copywriting, clear and concise labels are required for actions and keep messaging simple. Conversational, not sensational.

4. We use facts, not assumptions. 

Let data drive design decisions with researched evidence and real user needs. Analytics and metrics inform design decisions. Do not assume the user is like you. Always avoid basing decisions from a personal perspective.

5. We continually improve. 

Design, test, measure, improve, then repeat. Good design solves real problems and satisfies user needs. Test little and often as iteration reduces risk. Big failures become unlikely where small failures turn into lessons.

Offering transparency.

Organisational design principles will allow us to showcase to clients an insight into what is considered in the design process. As a business, we can make valuable decisions that are grounded by rational thinking by aligning our goals and defining what good looks like.

Offering transparency and communicating with purpose builds trust and helps customers and stakeholders understand why we approach projects this way.

If you have any questions about design principles, or would like to discuss a new project, please get in touch with