InVision presents

Principles of Product Design


by Aarron Walter

Successful design-driven companies building the best products with the strongest design teams have practices in common. These extensively researched core best practices will help your team design better, faster, and more collaboratively. Combined with the power of design thinking, these product design principles will accelerate your team’s design practice.


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Guess less
Stop wasting time

The software industry celebrates stories of lightning-strike success so much, you’d think hunches and risky bets could create unicorns. The best product design teams understand the reality—customer research forms the bedrock of successful products and companies.

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Story first
Find your North Star

Humans have used stories to foster collective understanding since the beginning. The most powerful designs start with a story—the why—and where your designs fit into people’s lives. Using product stories, journey maps, storyboards, and user personas, teams can build empathy and understanding before designing.

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Pencils before pixels
Think divergently

Every design begins somewhere, in imperfection. Sketching brings together designers and key stakeholders so they can collaboratively find the best solutions without getting lost in design details.

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Show and tell
Create a culture of feedback

When it comes to feedback, there’s little room for polite reserve within a design team. Use design reviews, retrospectives, design standups, and careful space planning to facilitate a culture of feedback within your team—your designs and designers will benefit.

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Fast feedback
Product prototyping—accelerated

Building great products requires an iterative process. The more your team tests their designs through prototyping, the faster you’ll discover needed course corrections or new possibilities. Through building blocks like pattern libraries and user feedback, teams can always design with fresh eyes.

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Lateral design
We're better together

Your org chart can greatly influence the design process at your company. Bridge gaps between design, engineering, research, product, and others with cross-functional teams, sprints, working groups, and other structural changes that enable better lateral design.

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Break the black box
Product design is people

As your company and design org mature and scale, it gets harder to maintain the visibility and transparency crucial for great product design. You’ll need to take on streamlining communication, surfacing design within the company, and more big-picture challenges beyond your desk.

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03

Pencils before pixels

Think divergently

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The work of the modern designer lives in the abstract world of the computer, where every move we make is precise and effortless. Precision has its place, but not in the early stages of the creative process, when our ideas are still nebulous. There’s danger when creative exploration starts with perfection.

Perfection can create the illusion of certainty, something architect Frank Gehry avoids as he begins a project. It’s discovery he craves. Craig Webb, Design Partner at Gehry Partners, has heard Gehry say many times, “If I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t go there.” To Gehry, peak creativity lies in the unknown.

His process begins with rough concepts. He and his team sketch, make models, then reflect. If the outcome isn’t right, they throw it out to begin again. Crude outputs early on make the work less precious and completely malleable.

The hundreds of models and sketches that cover the walls and surfaces of Frank Gehry’s studio are the artifacts of a creative process that starts wide, where there’s space for discovery of the best ideas before committing to a single direction.

Though Gehry’s work is unique, his process is not. Many creative thinkers start wide and narrow down. Unfortunately, many software design teams take a different approach—they start narrow and refine too soon.

Steve Jobs once famously likened the computer to a bicycle for the human mind. Computers help us make short work of complicated tasks and connect us to vast amounts of data—superpowers indeed, but when misapplied they can hinder the creative process.

Computers let us jump straight to pixels—a space of precision where everything aligns to a grid, vividly colored and fully formed. Precise outputs are precious and hard to abandon. This narrows creative exploration to just a few ideas well rendered.

To find the best design solutions, we should follow Frank Gehry’s lead: crudely render many ideas to find the solution worthy of a more precise investigation.

We can make more space in our creative process for critical thinking and better design by putting pencils before pixels.

The power of a pencil

The pencil is a humble tool that’s sparked millions of great ideas. It’s the inverse of a computer; it’s simple and limited in functionality, but its limitations make it effective.

Pencils are important to the creative process because:

  1. Pencils are inclusive. They’re not just for designers—anyone can use a pencil to express their ideas clearly. The pencil is the great equalizer.
  2. Pencils are low-fi. Quick sketches give no impression of a complete thought, signaling to all that it’s okay to offer feedback.
  3. Pencils aren’t fiddly. Instead of getting lost in software settings or style, you’ll focus on your ideas.
  4. Pencils are fast. You can explore vastly different solutions to the same problem in minutes, and you won’t feel bad throwing your sketches out because you invested so little time.

There’s a magic that happens when we put our ideas on paper. Dave Gray, Founder of XPLANE and co-author of Gamestorming, describes sketching as “a conversation with yourself.” Gabriela Goldschmidt, professor emeritus at Technion Israel Institute of Technology, made similar observations in a study of the sketching practices of architects published in the Creativity Research Journal. She discovered that although sketches start from ideas already within the mind, they can mutate into the unexpected—forming new ideas. Sketching is a thinking activity!

Many product designers already know this intuitively. Stanley Wood, Design Director at Spotify, told us, “Many of our designers sketch, but just so they can think through various ideas. Most of the time they don’t show them to anyone.”

And sketching, of course, is also a powerful communication device. The design team at Slack shares sketches with colleagues to invite conversation about concepts without getting distracted by style.

The MailChimp design team discovered that sketching is an important bridge to engineering colleagues. Todd Dominey, MailChimp’s Director of Design, noticed that “Pixels freak people out!” When engineers see a high fidelity design comp, they get the impression that the important decisions have been made without them, and now they’re expected to simply execute the design. But when a sketch is presented, it’s clear that the creative process is still wide open for their participation.

No art degree required

Depending on your background, the term “sketch” might conjure images of an artist in a Parisian cafe, leisurely capturing a scene with loose lines and precise shading. But you don’t need a beret or an art degree to sketch a quick UI or communicate an idea for a product (a cappuccino won’t hurt, though). If you can scribble some text and draw boxes, you’ve got all the skills you need to sketch.

Sketching is something anyone can do—it’s not the sacred territory of designers. Inviting others to participate in the design process will help you produce a more diverse set of design solutions. Engineers, product managers, executives, lawyers—anyone with a stake in your product—can help you turn abstract ideas into concrete solutions by sketching.

Sketching ideas together

A simple activity with tight constraints can be the catalyst you need to get your team comfortable. Todd Zaki Warfel, Senior Director of Design at Workday, created a team sketching activity called 6-8-5: you and your colleagues will generate 6 to 8 design solutions per person in just 5 minutes. No one will have enough time to get lost in fancy renderings, and that’s important. After all, the idea is to focus on ideas and ditch misgivings that “I can’t draw!” In this exercise, everyone’s sketches will be messy!

Here’s how it works

    1. Get your team together—designers, engineers, product managers, and experts with important domain knowledge. Limit the group to 8 or less to keep the discussion productive.
    2. Give each person a sheet of A5 or 8.5” x 11” paper. The paper will be folded 3 times to create 6 boxes (for 6 sketches). If you want to generate more ideas, fold the paper into quarters and give everyone 2 sheets.
  1. Frame the problem for everyone, and clearly state the desired outcomes of this project. “We want to help customers become active in this app more quickly. How might we achieve that?”
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and instruct everyone to sketch solutions individually (and silently, to help everyone focus).
  3. When the timer goes off, it’s time for each team member to present his or her ideas. Conversation about each idea is important here. Critical feedback will help you see what ideas are best. Every team member should be given the opportunity to share sketches.

If time permits, you can do additional rounds to go deeper into each idea. Working together to solve problems gives everyone shared ownership in the product vision and generates great results because so many diverse perspectives are present.

You might be wondering why everyone’s sketching separately in this exercise instead of together on a whiteboard. According to repeated studies on group brainstorming work, we produce fewer ideas and of lesser quality when we work in groups. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Remember, early in the creative process we’re best served by covering as much territory as we can instead of going deep on 1 or 2 ideas.

The right tools at the right time

The tools you use to sketch can influence how fast and far your creative explorations proceed. With fine line pens and mechanical pencils, you’ll be prone to create detailed sketches, which are slower. To avoid slipping into detail early on, Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, uses fat markers for sketching on large format graph paper. With fat markers, it’s pretty hard to draw a detailed UI. Instead, you have to focus on the workflow and how people will use your product.

Dave Gray, founder of XPLANE, speaks with Jason Fried of Basecamp about how he explores ideas through sketching.

As ideas are refined, a medium Sharpie or—my favorite—a Staedtler Triplus Fineliner can help you explore your ideas with more precision. Loose paper works best for sketches, as they can be shared, posted on the walls, or mercifully recycled rather than lingering for posterity in your sketchbook. Designers who sketch UI concepts in detail find Copic gray markers add depth and clarity to sketches.

Sketching with remote teams

Team sketching is an important part of the creative process at Lullabot, a creative agency that serves clients like SpaceX, The Grammys, GE, and Martha Stewart. Each new project they take on starts with a sketching session, but not of the sort described above—this design team is entirely remote.

Creative Director Jared Ponchot has devised a simple and inexpensive way to sketch as a team despite the distance that separates them. He bought each designer a simple USB document camera, the IPEVO. At just $60 each, Jared even buys the cameras for engineers, clients, and other key collaborators in the company so they can participate in early sketching sessions.

Like many remote teams, Lullabot runs their meetings via Google Hangouts. In their meetings, they share sketches by simply switching the camera source to the IPEVO. Each team member can walk others through their ideas, or sketch live to explain a new concept.

Ponchot’s solution is simple and effective. It keeps his team focused on a breadth of design solutions early in a project instead of jumping straight to pixels, where they would get lost in execution.

Related: Freehand–a fast, flexible new way to collaborate in real time

Ideas before execution

Sketching before we jump to the computer has many benefits, the greatest of which is that sketching keeps us laser-focused on ideas instead of the charms of design execution. Design is often described as the act of solving problems for others. We cannot live up to that mandate if polish eclipses exploration in our creative process.

Putting pencils before pixels can help you bring others into the design process and win you allies. Gaining the broad perspectives of your colleagues early on will also help your team produce better design solutions.

Here’s your to-do list to put pencils before pixels into practice

  • Generate dozens of ideas on paper before designing on the computer; sketching is a thought process that will help you discover the unexpected.
  • Get engineers, product managers, and other key stakeholders to sketch with your team in the early phases of a project. This will clarify the project for all, and create a sense of shared ownership.
  • If your team or clients are remote, use USB cams to share sketches and ideate as a team.
  • Constraints like fat markers or time limits on sketching can help you avoid getting lost in detail too soon.
06

Lateral design

We're better together

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To design better, we need to look beyond the confines of our craft. Design is more than color and form; design is the act of planning with the intention to serve others. Under this definition, the borders of design stretch beyond a single team.

Engineers, product managers, and researchers all have an important part to play in the design of a product. Their work, like ours, shapes the user experience. But despite shared interests, teams are often siloed by discipline, which makes collaboration and communication difficult, even dysfunctional.

Organizational design influences product design—significantly. If the relationship between the people who make a product is broken, the product will be broken too.

Broken teams, broken product

Here’s a scenario that plays out in companies far too often: Courtney and her team spent weeks perfecting the design of a new product. They presented the final concepts to stakeholders, got immediate sign off, then handed off their design files to Everett and his engineering team.

Though the dashboard design was stunning, Everett’s team had to gut it because the data Courtney’s team wanted to display wasn’t actually available. They also had to throw out the account sign up design because the designers hadn’t included all the necessary fields.

As Everett’s team continued to build the app, the distance between the intentions of designers and the execution of engineers widened. When Courtney finally got a peek at the app, she was horrified and said, “This looks nothing like the design we created!”

She walked across the building to engineering and stormed into Everett’s office to demand an explanation. Everett, frustrated that he and his team weren’t consulted earlier, curtly explained the design concept was ignorant of engineering requirements.

The relationship between design and engineering was already rocky—this wasn’t the first time they’d felt out of sync. Now it had gone from bad to worse, and the product was a reflection of their animosity. It was a mess.

Like an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, this story may hit a little too close to home. Courtney and Everett are out of step, as their organization is operating with a handicap—they have a vertical relationship. Design, at the top of the process, passes work down to engineering to execute—engineers aren’t part of the problem solving phase. Subsequently, Courtney’s team missed key technical details and key parts of the design had to be scrapped.

Vertical relationships also flow the other way—from engineering to design. Engineers rush to build a product’s infrastructure and pass it to designers for decoration afterwards. The results are equally disjointed, as buttons and type might look nice, but workflows built around database models instead of mental models leave users confused and frustrated.

Both scenarios are broken. Great products blend design and technology seamlessly. The feel and function of a product are interconnected, and equally important—like the right and left hemispheres of our brain that pass information laterally to synthesize creative thinking and logic.

We can take a cue from nature. When we bring teams together to work laterally—working on the product at the same time in the same place—we can reduce process entropy and create better products.

Cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams are a hallmark of the Agile process. They bring together engineers, designers, and a product manager to define a product’s purpose, function, and feel.

Cross-functional teams work laterally. Together product managers, designers, and engineers work to understand the problem and conceptualize solutions concurrently, not linearly, giving each team member a voice in key decisions.

Unlike the vertical workflow Courtney and Everett followed, cross-functional teams have no grand handoffs where communication falls apart and political battles erupt. No one is downstream. Pixels and code come together simultaneously around a clear business strategy.

Cross-functional teams have many benefits:

  • Working closely, designers and engineers develop a strong understanding of their colleagues’ craft.
  • The rapport established within cross-functional teams fosters empathy and respect that make collaboration easier (and more fun).
  • Communication is much faster; designers are immediately made aware of the technical challenges their decisions create, and engineers learn when function diminishes form.
  • Diverse perspectives each step of the way lead to better product solutions.
  • Shared ownership dampens political fighting and builds trust.

Though a team may disband after a feature launches, strong bonds remain (like friendships formed in summer camp). This can only strengthen the company culture.

 

Dipping a toe in the water

To make sustainable improvements to the way your organization designs products, you may need to take a red pen to your organizational chart. These sorts of changes don’t come easy or quickly.

But before doing anything drastic, you can test the waters with some small experiments. Small projects with tight deadlines are a great place to start experimenting with cross-functional teams.

If time is tight, start by investing just 1 week in a Design Sprint.

Design sprints

A design sprint is a 5-day process developed by Google Ventures for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. Because it takes just 1 week, it’s a low-risk way to try out a lateral design process in a cross-functional team.

The Google Ventures group goes into great detail in their Sprint book and its related websites, but in short, over 5 days a small team will go from understanding the problem space to validating a design solution.

If you survive the sprint and produce a great product idea, you’ll have set the stage for more cross-functional teamwork in the future.

Working groups

Like design sprints, working groups assemble a cross-functional team to tackle a tough problem. But working groups stay together much longer than a week to produce a final product that’s actually shipped to customers. After the project is complete, everyone returns to their respective teams.

Working groups have:

  • Clearly defined objectives and metrics to measure success
  • Designers, engineers, a product manager, and maybe even a design researcher
  • The autonomy to make key decisions about the product they’re building
  • A deadline to ship

MailChimp has a long history of assembling working groups to focus on hairy projects. One such team was created to design a new drag-and-drop email editor.

A designer, a front-end developer, and 2 engineers—one of whom had a talent for prototyping—sequestered themselves behind closed door in a small MailChimp office to tackle the project. Sketching and debating, they looked at the problem from all angles.

Sketches turned into simple prototypes. The designer explored UI concepts and made refinements. Developers coded out the new design, tweaking interactions as they went. Back and forth they worked, always sharing progress with each other immediately and inviting debate.

Eventually, the prototype had reached its limits. After testing with the whole company and select customers, the new editor, Neapolitan, eventually shipped. This working group gave the company the opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of the product roadmap to go deep on an important feature that made working in MailChimp easier and faster.

Everyone on the working group returned to their respective teams with respect for their colleagues and their craft, and knowledge of what could be accomplished when designing laterally.

Going further: Institutionalizing lateral design

Big wins from working group projects can spark conversations about optimizing the rest of the company. The cross-functional team structure that enables lateral design can be scaled up by uniting engineering, product management, and design in an organizational structure commonly referred to as EPD.

Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb, describes EPD as a 3-legged stool that supports the organization.

A stool with 1 leg shorter than the others causes instability and imbalance. Similarly, EPD organizations are unstable when a function of the troika is weaker or more powerful than the others. EPD’s strength comes from sharing power.

Each function of EPD must be involved and aligned from a product’s inception to its launch. EPD teams are typically organized around product features by areas of the user experience:

  • Facebook organizes its teams by product feature like news feed, profile, or messenger.
  • Airbnb organizes teams around areas of the user experience like the guest or host experience.

Like workgroups, each team is cross-functional, with representation from each leg of the EPD stool.

The success of EPD is directly connected to the health of the relationships among the 3 leaders of engineering, product management, and design. Dysfunction from the top will trickle down to the respective teams quickly. It’s imperative that these 3 leaders remain united in their leadership and communication to the company.

The challenges of cross-functional teams

Though cross-functional teams offer a number of advantages, they can be challenging. Workgroups, because they’re temporary, rarely surface significant issues. Instead, designers might feel like they’re on a vacation—they get to learn new things before returning to the comforts of home.

Permanent cross-functional teams are more like expatriating—designers will wrestle with their identity and struggle to adapt to a foreign land. Read on to learn how these problems, though common, are being solved at a lot of great companies. Going into an EPD structure with open eyes and a set of solutions will help you transition smoothly.

Isolation

As we saw in Show and Tell, designers need regular feedback from other designers. In a cross-functional team, it’s common for a designer to operate alone, which leaves them craving conversations with peers. Organizations like Slack, Twitter, and the BBC offer some interesting solutions.

Slack: Paired design

Lateral design in cross-functional teams is a mainstay at Slack, but designers always work in pairs, with 1 acting as the lead designer.

You can pair designers even if you’re short staffed. Pair a designer with a colleague from another team who can spend about 8 hours per week (or just a little over an hour per day) working in tandem on design problems.

Twitter: Design reviews

In early 2014, Twitter transitioned from a centralized design team to embedding designers in cross-functional teams. In order to prevent designers from feeling isolated or unable to consistently learn from their colleagues, Mike Davidson, VP of Design, scheduled weekly design reviews and other activities in the design studio to bring everyone together as a team. Congregating regularly gave all designers the opportunity to discuss the overall design style of the company and keep everyone in sync.

BBC: Rotate teams

The BBC, with more than 20,000 employees, lets employees work on a new team every year. This policy helps all employees, not just designers, form new relationships and broaden their understanding of the organization.

Designers who want to rotate within the UX&D team speak to their manager to explore the idea. Approval is common if they’ve spent over a year on the same team. The resource manager facilitates the transfer, taking into account the designer’s skills, career goals, and current team availabilities.

Aligning style and values

Decentralized design teams have to work a bit harder to make sure design remains consistent across features and products. The style of each UI and the values that guide design decisions can fall into disarray if teams are left without clear guidelines. Many large organizations are working hard to solve this problem, but few more than Spotify.

Spotify: Design systems and values

As a company scales, design consistency becomes more difficult to manage. Companies like Salesforce, IBM, the BBC, and Atlassian created a design system to solve UI consistency issues, but Spotify used their design system to solve an organizational problem too.

The team that manages Spotify’s design language—called GLUE (a Global Language for a Unified Experience)—is the center of the design universe in the company around which all other design work orbits. Designers regularly sync up with the GLUE team to get guidance on new UIs and suggest additions to the design language.

Design systems, once thought of as an occasional side project, are playing a more central role in large organizations, making them a perfect place for designers to converge and find common solutions.

Guilds

Designers in cross-functional teams throughout Spotify are joined together by a design guild—a community of interest where knowledge, tools, and best practices can be shared. Anyone, not just designers, is welcome to join discussions in the design guild. A guild coordinator is responsible for managing activities.

Spotify’s guild structure comes from the Agile practices developed by the engineering team.

Values

Outnumbered as they often are in cross-functional teams, designers acquiesce to engineers who encourage smaller design iterations and a simpler approach. Do we really need that animated transition? Does it add much value? It’s difficult to champion the necessity of small details when you’re the lone designer. Many simply give in and get back to work.

There’s nothing wrong with a little pushback between designers and engineers—it keeps both from becoming self-indulgent. But often, engineers push back on design simply because they don’t understand how to measure the success of a design.

Engineers measure success quantitatively:

  • How many lines of code were required?
  • Did this impact site performance?
  • How many bugs did we ship?

Designers measure success qualitatively:

  • Does it look good?
  • Is it easy to use?
  • Is it delightful?

Just as an engineer’s work shouldn’t be measured by design metrics, a designer’s work shouldn’t be measured by those of an engineer. Instead, designers and engineers, working together, must form a shared understanding of what constitutes success.

Recognizing this need, Spotify articulated a series of design values—principles that communicate what’s most important when solving a design problem—and made them available to the whole company. Common values help designers articulate their design decisions.

For example, a large image occupying key space in a UI may seem indulgent to an engineer—Is this photo really necessary? We could fit more data here if we get rid of it. With the support of well defined design values in the vein of Spotify, a designer might respond, “Our design values state that a UI should ‘be alive’. This image creates movement, adds color, and brings an otherwise stagnate UI to life.”

With a shared set of design values, priorities and how they’re communicated becomes clearer.

Lateral design in practice

Lateral design is not organizational dogma. Whether your company is Agile, Lean, or something in between, it creates a spirit of respect and empathy between domains to produce great products.

Organizational design influences product design. Shared ownership, collaborative problem solving, and blended teams are key.

Here’s your to-do list as you put lateral design into practice in your company:

  • Starting small with a 1-week design sprint.
  • When you’ve had a taste of the benefits of cross-functional teams, create a working group to tackle a project with a clear timeline and defined outcomes. You should have designers, developers, and a product manager on the team.
  • When your organization is ready to go further, organize teams in an EPD structure. Engineering, product, and design should share power, and report directly to the CEO or COO.

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find Aarron on Twitter and Medium sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at http://aarronwalter.com.

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

Principles of Product Design
Principles of Product Design