June 28, 2021

Product principles: Your guide to building products users love

Richard Trigg

Design Partner

Article 50

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Poor products come about when different people with different priorities make disjointed decisions. Codify what success looks like in some simple principles, and you can keep everyone on track.

By its very nature, the product design process in a large company is complicated.

There are multiple teams across lots of different disciplines, all with a finger in the pie. There can be literally hundreds of decisions being made each day about your product, all from different people with different priorities.

Without a framework that’s aligned with the product’s core DNA and the value it offers users, these decisions easily become disjointed. Misalignment inevitably follows. Before you know it, you’re off track with delivering your ultimate vision.

The solution is to develop simple but powerful product principles to keep everyone on the same path.

What exactly are product principles?

Product principles are essentially the fundamental basics of what your product stands for, summarised in short, easy-to-absorb mantras. Every decision can be made with these mantras in mind.

These principles align with the product’s core DNA, overall vision and the value it brings to customers.

When everyone – from every discipline – is working to the same principles, there’s no conflict. There’s no debate over which decision is best. It should be clear which decision aligns with the principle and with the needs of the customer.

Product principles exist to facilitate better, faster decision making.

What makes good product principles?

Good product principles are actionable and memorable.

They should be aligned with the overall mission, beliefs, and ethos of the product. They can help differentiate it from the competition.

However, more importantly, they’re about bringing value to your customer.

There are tons of other principles out there, such as the North Star Metric, that can guide decision making. However, these principles should come down to tangible value. What do your unique customers want? And what will make them use your product over another?

Here are few commonly used principles that have helped shape brilliant digital products:

  • Don’t make me think

  • Make bigger, bolder bets

  • Build trust

  • Make it quick

  • Direct to one platform

  • Create delight

  • Shape the solution

  • Be technically conservative

  • Build in small steps

  • Keep it simple

  • Build with positivity and pride

Case study: Make it quick

We’re currently working on a new app focused on helping companies manage their workspace and team.

Early on in our research, we spotted that our users don’t come to the app for fun – they come to get a job done. That led us to develop the product principle, “Make it quick”.

This mantra has helped us to strip away any of the unnecessary features and designs. Every action is quick and easy to assess, without any distracting marketing messaging that increases cognitive load.

Case study: Direct to one platform

Another current project involves creating a smoother user experience for a global online learning platform.

One of the biggest frustrations users currently have is jumping around from one place to another to access the content. We’re using the principle ‘One platform’ to get away from this.

When tricky technical issues could be solved by linking to other sites, the principle focuses everyone on the ‘One platform’ we know people really want.

How to create your product principles

Different techniques will work for different organisations. But this is our go-to approach at Tangent:

  1. Gather stakeholders from across the organisation. Anyone that has input or influence over product design: developers, designers, product managers, product researchers, and anyone else.

  2. Ask each stakeholder to write down up to 10 principles that form the core DNA of the product (or should do so). Focus on value to customers rather than company goals.

  3. Stick each principle up on the wall (or use a digital whiteboard such as FigJam or a tool like Miro or LucidSpark if you’re working remotely) and allow everyone time to read all the different options. You could also hold a meeting and ask each stakeholder to explain the reasoning behind their product principles.

  4. Get voting. You can use the dot voting technique, giving everyone a number of dots stickers or ask for a show of hands online.

  5. Assign a selection of stakeholders to craft the principles, and refine the language. A small team is best for this to avoid complicating the principles. You could get a copywriter involved, too.

  6. Test your new principles out. Think back to some tough decisions you’ve had to make in the past. Consider them alongside your principles, and see if the mantras could have helped you choose wisely.

  7. Let your principles evolve. It’s not a one-time thing. They’re never finished. Your business, your audience, your product, your tech… they’re constantly changing. So principles need to change, too.

Ideally, you should choose just 3-5 principles so that they’re easier to put into practice.

Keep them top of mind

If your product principles are out of sight, they’re easily out of mind. Visibility and repetition is the key to making them stick.

You could create illustrations for each of your product principles, making them easier to remember. Put them on posters, laptop stickers or screensavers. Refer to them in meetings and during onboarding.

Integrate them into the day-to-day life of your team.

Better principles make better decisions

Perhaps something inherent in us humans makes us want to take the simplest path, even though that may not be the right one. This is something we forget in the customer context.

We always want to do things the easy, obvious way, even though it might not be best for our customers.

When we’re faced with a challenging problem, it’s natural to want to implement the simplest fix. And that can cause us to make the same mistakes over and over again.

The solution, however, is right here. Just two or three seemingly simple principles that can enable and empower us to change for the better with every decision we make.