In my experience creating a useful set of design principles is really, really hard. I was reminded of this recently when I led the creation of a set of design principles to help define the future experience for Citizens Advice. During this process I was reminded of a few key rules to consider…

Katie Wishlade
Katie Wishlade
24th August 2021

Be purposeful

Design principles can exist for different reasons. Some are more process driven (e.g. We design in the open, Co-op). Some more value based (e.g. Human, HubSpot). Others are more about defining the characteristics of a service/product (e.g. Smart and personalised, Ebay). Ultimately the type of design principles you create should be dependent on how and why they are being created. What kind of decisions do you want to influence? Process decisions, strategy decisions, or interface decisions?

With Citizens Advice we wanted our design principles to be a tool for making decisions. We wanted the principles to help guide decisions in selecting a new platform. So we created a set that would define the key characteristics of the future experience.

Tip: Before creating your design principles, discuss how they are going to be used and by whom. Then define what “good” looks like for your design principles.

Be yourself

Design principles have been a bit of a buzz technique for a while now. There are now catalogues of them online for you to browse through. There’s a real temptation to start by reviewing others but I’d strongly recommend holding off doing this for the same reason I’m not a massive fan of competitive reviews. Once you’ve seen other people’s it’s very difficult not to be influenced by them (even subconsciously). Since useful design principles are unique to your organisation this can put you on the back foot immediately. Ideally, design principles are inspired by your knowledge, your users, and your business. So try to ground them in your own context.

For Citizens Advice we were in the fortunate position of having done user research to inform the principles. We used these insights to identify key themes to inspire the direction of the principles.

Tip: Where possible, gather insights to inspire your design principles process and embed the user in the process. Avoid looking at other companies, particularly your competitors.

Be actionable

Design principles typically describe how the experience should feel and not what you want it to achieve (outcomes). For example, we want it to feel conversational rather than formal. It’s actually surprisingly easy to forget this and bleed into a more descriptive, perhaps less controversial, ‘what’ statement. So continually ask yourself does this describe how the experience will feel. Will it enable us to make a decision on one course of action over another?

For Citizens Advice we had a design principle titled ‘serve quickly’. On the surface this seems very obvious. But this had massive implications for them. In the case of the phone system, it meant that it was better for any advisor to answer your call than to wait longer for a specific advisor to be available. This in turn would have big implications for the design of the queuing system. It was a good example of how we could think of features that do and don’t facilitate the principle.

Tips: Continually ask yourself if this principle describes how the experience feels and if you can think of examples that do and don’t demonstrate this principle.

Be considered

Creating design principles is a process that you’re unlikely to get right the first time. So iterate and test the principles to make sure you get the message behind each principle just right. For Citizens Advice all our principles went on quite a journey, with multiple iterations over the course of a two-week period with small team discussions.

Consider every single word carefully. Play with different ways of articulating the message. Try to make the principles feel part of one set.

For Citizens Advice each principle consisted of one core message, a description, a set of Do’s and Dont’s, and the user insights that inspired its creation.

Tip: Allow time to iterate the principles and play with the language. Also play with different ways of articulating the principles such as describing why you’ve used specific words or having example do’s and don’t.

Be maintained

Like any design tool, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Will the design principles be used in practice or simply stuck up on a wall and forgotten about? Making sure key stakeholders are involved in their creation will help to some extent but it’s important to also nominate an owner. This owner is responsible for making key decisions, communicating their value and keeping them as a living reference for teams.

For Citizens Advice we established an owner of their design principles and we plan to check in on them in a few months to see how they’re being used in practice.

Tip: Establish an owner of the design principles responsible for making key decisions and communicating their value.