12 Product Design Principles Every Product Owner Needs to Know

Collin Harsin

Agile Product Development

Close Banner

Free Template & Financial Spreadsheet

Create your SaaS business plan

Sign Up

Product design principles are core tenants that you guide your whole team. They create cohesion in the design process. Arguably more important is that product design principles help your team’s decision-making. They create a “if this, then that” mental pathway in the brain.

Below are some of our favorite principles that you can start implementing right now.

1. Emulation and innovation are not exclusive.

They aren’t these polar opposite ideas. Emulation is defined as “imitating with the effort to equal or surpass.” While innovation is asking: “what can we do better?” Apple didn’t create the first iPhone, nor Microsoft the first computer. It’s their obsession with customer experience that seperated them.

Microsoft in particular went against the grain. Thier goal of putting computers on every desk and in every household was laughable to those who only saw computer usability as a tool for massive enterprise. They kept trucking regardless. And after a huge deal with IBM in 1980. What is now the Microsoft OS would become the defacto in home and business PC’s around the globe.

Emulate product management stategies, methods and principles of companies you admire. Then innovate based your own needs.

2. Guesses make messes

It’s common to see businesses find early success, then stop prioritizing customer experience. They start thinking they know better than the customer, and then are left dumbfounded when the customers exit en masse.

Buffer, the social media toolkit company, knows this all too well (Pg.8). After going in on features with functionality that the customer didn’t ask for, like content suggestions and a daily IOS app, the company was in financial trouble. They had to pivot. Fast. This blunder cost 10 people their jobs, and Buffer had to fight to get in users’ good graces again.

Being bold and fast are excellent traits for a business, but are nothing without the consumer knowledge to direct it. You will end up wasting time, money and resources on features that will only agitate your user base.

3. Design local, think global

With how interconnected the world is, you would think that most products would be made with that in mind. And just like me, you would be wrong.

Products designers often make the mistake of omitting both internationalization and localization to their products.

  • Internationalization - making product design as flexible as possible. Allowing for easier localization.

  • Localization - language only and is often not sufficient to satisfy users

The former is the base for the ladder. Apps that aren’t built with these design systems in place are costly to localize. Not to mention, a non-localized app could result in up to a 13% loss of its audience.

Here are some tips for internationalization and localization from John Saito, UX writer at Dropbox.

  1. Leave room for longer translations

  2. Avoid putting text in narrow columns

  3. Don’t embed text in images

  4. Don’t create sentences with UI elements

  5. Watch out for metaphors

  6. Use descriptive feature names

  7. Provide alternates for translation

Good products are local, great products are global.

4. Start with the problem

Moving from problem to decision and solution quickly is great when you're deciding on where to eat. When you’re creating product for thousands if not millions of people, not so much. Without fully analyzing the problem, you end up retreading old ground with your solutions.

Starting with the problem relies on empathizing with the customer. Understanding their issues, what they are saying about them and what they aren’t. After that, you clearly define the problem, often with a problem statement.

With three main parts, problem statements act as a north star in product development:

Outcome they want - Refers to customer needs, not to a specific feature.

  • Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

  • A customer may ask for a specific feature because that is the only way they know how to solve the problem. It’s your job as the product owner to come up with new solutions not based on the feature customers say they want, but on the problem they are having.

Driver - The agitation behind the feedback.

  • Why is this problem a problem? This requires looking at a combination of both qualitative and quantitative data. With both in hand, you read between the lines to find the driver.

Problems with the status quo - Analyze why the current solution isn’t up to snuff.

  • Now knowing the outcome users want and the driver behind that outcome. You can now hold it up against the current solution to find the inadequacies. Are there features missing? Is something not working as intended? Being used improperly?

5. Let creatives create

In the 80s movie classic Back to the Future, Scientist Doc Brown iconically figured out time travel while hanging a clock in his bathroom. While hanging it, he fell and hit his head on the sink and came up with what makes time travel possible, the flux capacitor.

As improbable as that sounds, most creatives work similarly. Their best ideas are from doing things not tied to the problem. Their subconscious is directed on a single problem and works on the problem in the background. Einstein called this “combinatory play” as most of his ideas came during his violin lessons.

Contemporary times have dubbed this the incubation process.

All the biggest companies lean heavily into this process. So much so that design teams are often separated from the rest of the company. These creatives still have deadlines but are allowed to spend time between deadlines how they see fit.

6. Serve your users first and the rest will follow

The design thinking process starts with empathizing with your customers. And ends (though not really) with testing your products with them. Their interests should be weighed on every moment in between.

It’s always going to be a struggle between that and the goals of the businesses. Ideally, you want to hit the sweet spot, although that isn’t always possible. But if history is anything to look at, making design decisions that side with the customers often puts you in a better business position long term. While leaning towards business goals often pushes people away, forcing you to lean harder, etc. The cycle continues.

7. Stay agile

In the product development world, staying agile has many definitions. Engineers will refer to their tools, product leads to their methodologies, etc. At the heart of all that is the agile mindset. It is being comfortable pivoting when needed and not investing too much too fast. You do this by:

  • Building efficient prototypes (high fidelity or otherwise).

  • Being comfortable scrapping ideas or features.

  • Following the “test then invest” ethos.

Samsung in 1997 was forced to become agile in the face of financial instability during the East Asia financial crash. Facing down the gun of severe debt, they shifted to higher end products, R&D and reorganizing its product development team and innovation into the now the famous PIT.

8. What works now will not work forever

Your product must evolve with its customers. This means keeping the development pipeline filled with what you believe will enhance the user experience.

Here are the 4 phases of the development pipeline.

4 phases of the development pipeline

  1. Ideas - problems that you’re looking at solving.

  2. Development- prototypes for the problems you’ve decided to solve.

  3. Testing - getting feedback on prototypes and iterating.

  4. Ready to launch - features/products that are ready for mass user feedback.

How to keep the development pipeline filled.

  • Let creatives create.

  • Analyze user feedback and habits.

  • Turn that information into actionable steps.

  • Rinse and repeat.

Not every product iteration will be a hit. But value all feedback because it allows you to deepen your understanding of the user. You keep users engaged when you show you are active with the product they enjoy.

9. Good design is understandable and intuitive

This principle comes from the legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams. His work has inspired multiple products for Apple, such as the iPod.

We’ve all picked up a product or looked at directions, and we’re immediately intimidated by the complexity. So much so that we put it down.The less time they spend figuring your product out, the more time they can spend utilizing it.

Ikea solves this problem with simple instructions and well labeled parts. They know their users don’t want to think.

10. Create a consistent experience

Humans are complicated. We don’t like change, but we praise progress. If you create a useful but alien product. Many users will shy away from it. Great design strikes a balance between the known and the new.

PepsiCo and Method executed this perfectly when creating the first touchless fast food kiosk. Taking the already familiar kiosk form factor. Method outfitted it with the latest in touchless identification. The testing at a KFC in Poland resulted in an only 15% of customers reporting a learning curve.

11. You can’t out-manage bad talent, and good talent can’t outwork bad materials

Your two most important aspects of product design are the talent you hire and the tools they work with. Internal, external, Laravel, C++. Having a mismatched will slow development, create unneeded pressure and cost you a boat load of money.

Devsquad recently worked with Musician’s Toolkit, an innovative music learning app, who learned this principle the hard way. Musician’s toolkit went through two frustrating hires, an external team and an internal developer who both couldn’t get the job done. 8 months late and not meeting client's needs. We stepped in and supplied a fully rebuilt product within 3 months.

Lesson: If you spend the majority of time on one decision. Let it be who you hire.

12. Promote transparency

Transparency between the design team allows for a higher level collaboration that is essenital for product design to excel. For example: Ideation sessions are only effective when everyone feels safe to vocalize even the wildest of ideas.

However transparency isn’t only delegated to baselevel employees. It must run through the whole company to be effective. Managers must not put themselves above anyone else.

Here are the easiest ways to promote transparency:

  1. Give employes access to all information.

  2. Let employees be part of the decision making process.

  3. Explain to employees why a decision was made.

Key takeaways

The companies we’ve referenced above not only take inspiration other companies product design principles. They make them their own. In the end, you have a vision for your company and the users you serve. So treat the principles above not as gospel, but as a template to build off of and create your own principles.

Close Banner

Building a product?

Discover the DevSquad Difference

Learn More