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5 Principles of Product Design

When we look at Slack, Figma, Spotify and their stellar products, we feel the refreshing simplicity and frictionless experience that arises every time you interact with product design with a capital D.

Are there any universal rules and patterns which can give you a direction to a good product design? We know at least five such rules.

Socrates’ principle of UX research

If you’re going to solve a problem, you want a method to separate good ideas from those that are less good, and ideally, before any effort is wasted. The method you’re looking for is UX research.

Socrates’ standpoint “I know that I know nothing” perfectly describes the mindset of UX researchers who admit they are not knowing, who are curious, and keep doubting what they find.

You won’t find any good product design team neglecting the research phase. That’s not because they have so much time and money. Rather, they know the research will help them avoid doing wrong things, or right things but in the wrong way. Therefore, studies will finally save them time and money.

Spotify went black before it became mainstream. They researched user preferences according to the color palette. All betted the whites will win. Imagine their surprise when it turned out that people prefer listening to music in dark surroundings. Socrates’ principle of product design helped Spotify create an app that is not only satisfying to use but also sets the company apart from the rest of the music apps.

Product Design

First pencils, then pixels

Pixel by pixel work has its place, but not in the early stages of the ideation, when our concepts are still nebulous. Because if you realize you got it wrong in the final stages, the price of going backward would be incredibly high.

Strong product design teams run series of very fast and very cheap experiments with prototypes to incubate ideas. And when we say “prototypes”, we mean something that was scrawled on a piece of paper. Let’s take a look at prototyping at Slack. Kyle Stetz, Staff Engineer at the company, opens up a bit about how Slack approaches prototyping.

Designers and frontend engineers, in pairs or small groups, have a day to build a draft of a concept they wanted to try — like, what if Slack only had a “start menu” from which all controls were accessible? Or, what if they display messages in a whole new way?

Product Design

An early “start menu” prototype, image credit: slack.engineering

Kyle Stetz recommends deciding on success and failure criteria that might accompany prototypes. Thus, you’ll make it easier for a feedback team of colleagues and customers to evaluate your suggestions.

The principle of love at first sight

With one glimpse, everything becomes clear and sparkly between two people in romantic movies. In real life, relationships rarely go so smoothly.

Similarly, a design that intends to be intuitive and clear from first sight often happens to be misleading, vague, and ambiguous.

Product Design

If you offer users to choose from three literally the same options, they will be confused. If you give them Yes, No, Cancel and Save buttons, your users will never be sure they are taking the right action.

Skilled designers narrow down the ambiguity to make the design crystal-clear. Instead of vague buttons, you get specific instructions, like Yes, delete this message.

What is more, to avoid extra explanations, experienced designers make the context do a part of the job. Slack makes its editing tools intuitive using pictograms that show you where you need to click if you want your text in bold or italic.

Product Design

Three click principle (busted)

You've probably heard of the famous "Three Click Rule," which says users will leave your site or application if they can’t find the information they are looking for in three clicks.

Design community questions this rule, and for a reason. Yes, users are impatient, and yes, when you can do two clicks instead of six, better stick with two. But remember that fewer steps don’t necessarily mean a better navigation experience. Even happens that the focus on cutting the number of clicks can lead us to usability problems.

The goal of a UX designer is to make users’ life easier. At certain places, it means adding a few additional steps in the design. Nielsen Norman Group proves that the three-click principle is an unofficial heuristic that should not be used blindly.

In the picture below, you can see the NYC.gov website. Finding where to report a broken water meter is only three steps away, but do those clicks create a smooth and sweet user experience? Not really.

On the homepage, users click NYC Resources (1), then scroll through a long and boring list of links to find the one needed somewhere below the page fold (2) just to get to the new endless list of links with Water Meter Complaint (3) at the very end.

Product Design

The principle of magical number seven

The number of objects an average person can hold in working memory is about seven. For UX designers it means that you shouldn’t challenge your users with an overwhelming number of choices. It also means that whenever you can, you should group information into smaller chunks, just like we used to do with phone and bank card numbers.

Look at the series of numbers below. Would it be easy for you to remember them?

0 9 6 7 8 5 5 3 5 2

Wouldn’t it look more pleasant if we group the numbers into a phone number formula?

(096) 785-53-52

Look at any online magazine — even if they have a single content format, the articles will always be divided into several groups. Spotify was guided by the same principle when divided dozens of its music categories into a few clusters.

Product Design

Wrapping up the principles of product design

Okay, that's it for today. That’s not an ultimate list of product design golden rules, for sure. But there is a high chance that if you apply those principles as your product and design foundation, users will love what you built.


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