We all love to work on our style guides and component libraries, and to mess with the newest, fastest, coolest design tools. But, before we go into the nitty gritty details of how we operate as a design team, we should first define clear design guidelines, a set of principles, and most importantly a framework to inform our design decisions. Design principles not only elevate the design maturity in a team, they also push companies to recognize the power of design and encourage them to advocate more for design and users in a larger setting. Here I would like to share the journey of my team, which is working on the new Microsoft To-Do at the moment, as we established a few design principles to guide us in crafting functional, meaningful, and thoughtful experiences.
Consistent & Reliable
From building robust product performance to designing consistent experiences across devices and form factors, the product should feel reliable, should feel like it has the user’s back. And the key to get there is designing with intention in mind, building for the right reasons and solving real world problems. Thinking in this mindset also unlocks ways to gain trust from the users while delivering to them what they need in an effortless and compelling manner. Navigationally, organizationally, hierarchically, and in terms of layout, good design should anticipate what the users need, deliver what it promises, and be consistent and reliable along the way.
One dilemma we sometimes discuss in-depth is the fact that while consistency can be remarkably empowering, there are times when it gets in the way of innovation by dictating how the design should look and feel to the extent that it becomes an impractical burden for experimentation. At this point, a product team should make the right judgement on where they feel encouraged to bend the rules and be more opinionated to go above and beyond and try out new ways of interactions and looking at solving problems. Balancing the right consistency and novelty comes with establishing a strong sense of purpose, context, and ultimately solid design principles that keep reminding the design teams of their intentions and reasons and thus help them move more quickly.
Accessible & Inclusive
As a design team that builds software for millions, accessibility and inclusivity in our journey has been crucial. Rather than designing for our abilities and biases, we’ve shaped our mission to design products and services that are serving everyone--not designed with accessibility as an afterthought or a box to check during the design process. At Microsoft, one of the underlying company philosophies is “When it comes to people, there is no such thing as “Normal.” To avoid ignoring the wide range of the humanity and to advocate for all of our users, from the very beginning of our design process, we set our focus on accessibility from contrast ratios, from providing voiceover control to designing keyboard interactions ourselves, rather than relying on default settings. With accessibility in mind, we care for the users and we step out of our own shoes and build empathy through research for the global audience. Our goal is in order to enhance every part of that audience’s life and help them fight the problems they encounter everyday and achieve their goals.
And our sense of inclusive is also knit into the DNA of our design team’s culture and in the way we treat one another. One thing I care deeply about as a manager is to nurture an environment that is safe, fun, and happy to work in for everyone regardless of their backgrounds. With respect and dignity towards one another, being inclusive helps with one’s performance, productivity, and overall spirit.
Connected & Scalable
We design experiences that evolve around people who manage relationships with other people, other technologies, and other sets of data. We constantly make sense of these relationships and craft the connection between all these end points in our design journey. The experiences that we design have a deep understanding for
the actions they perform,
the habits they embody,
the spaces they operate in,
the cultures they interact with
the actors they are engaged with,
the channels they rely on to gather data and information in their surroundings.
Our mission as the design team is to manage the complexity of these connections on a global level, in a large ecosystem like Microsoft. The experiences that we build should each have autonomy as a stand-alone experience, as well as being well integrated into the larger ecosystem, adding to its holistic cohesion. Especially when we play a key role in the productivity space, our mission in the tasks space we are building as a part of Microsoft informs our design philosophy and decisions. We need to be mindful of the existing behavior patterns through which people experience tasks as a part of a suite of tools that operate in various platforms, form factors, and services, and so design our tools with a strong sense of consistency and intelligence. In order to do so, we also shift our design thinking to treat each set of experience we build as an “atomic design unit.” This helps us create timeless, forward thinking, connected, and consistent experiences that have strong brand recognition and uniqueness while taking the whole system identity and utility into account.
Thoughtful & Crafty
We build experiences that feel human and empathetic. Our design should feel like a craft that is thought out to the last detail. From pixels, copy, and motion to the larger information hierarchy and layout, it should represent the design team’s personality and approach to excellence. As Eames beautifully says, "The details are not the details. They make the design.” From the cold mechanic punch card to computing, computing to the command line interaction and to graphical user interfaces and artificial intelligence, experiences have evolved to be adaptive, anticipatory, and conversational crafts with a soul. When we are designing for such intimate parts of human life, each experience makes an impact on everyday life and with that consciousness, we stir our special sauce and turn it into unique experiences that keep the users engaged with the right care and focus.
Being a “productivity” tool to help people achieve their goals comes with its own set of challenges, since people tend to associate productivity with seriousness, work, and tasks with negative consequences if they “fail to complete.” And that’s the contrary to what we envision our product experience to be. To fight this and break this existing notion, personality and tone has been crucial in connecting people with the things that they want to achieve in every part of their life and to be there for them when they need us.
Building experiences is a long journey, but creating the foundational design principles is a longer and more valuable journey that guide us to make sure the experiences we build are the right ones that reflect the right culture we aspire. We are still fine-tuning our values as we go. Similar to our design system, our design principles are also like living organisms that evolve over time. We learn from our mistakes and adapt to fill the mental gaps we lack along the way. It is essential that after establishing your design principles, you make sure to share them widely. We printed our philosophy and hung it on the wall where it gained visibility and exposure and clearly communicated our values for clarity, appreciation, education, and collaboration across our office in our actions and design work, too. Good luck with yours!